Her Letters To Lovecraft: Anne Tillery Renshaw

Having finally broken away from Dorchester & attained Copley Square, I at last met in person the celebrated leader of United affairs whom I have known in letters for seven years—Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw of Rocky Mount, N.C., & Washington, D.C. In aspect stout & homely, she is in conversation pleasant, cultivated, & intelligent; with all the force of mind & speech becoming a philosopher, poet, & professor of English, drama, & public speaking. […] At the School of Expression the only amateurs were Mrs. Renshaw & her travelling companion Miss Crist—a colourless young woman who acts as her secretary, typist, & general caretaker; reminding her when she leaves her handbag behind or fails to put on her hat—for Mrs. R. has all the absent-mindedness of genius. […] The conversation consisted almost exclusively of philosophical argument, in which Mrs. R. has all the facility & urbanity of James F. Morton Jr. […] Mrs. McMullen played & sang her “Bumble Fairy”, & Mrs. Renshaw sang two songs (of which she wrote the words) in an excellent controlato, with Miss Crist as accompanist. […] Mrs. Renshaw, who had evidently acquired some of that flattering tendency which is inherent in the air of country villages like Boston, insisted that I ought to write a textbook on English—offering to see to its publication & introduce it in classes at Research University, where she is not head of the English Department. This rather reminded me of the high-flown pipe-dreams of Alnaschar—but another of her commercial suggestions was really practical so far as appearances go. This latter was a plan for me to correct & criticise by mail a number of English themes each week—the exercises of Mrs. R’s classes at the University. Such a procedure would, if the price were sufficiently high, be rather less horrible than Bush work—but there was no time that evening to discuss details. Plans with financial features usually fall through, so I am not yet planning what make of automobile I shall purchase with the fortune gained by text book authorship & associate professorship!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 19 Aug 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37-40

In 1914, Anne Vyne Tillery and H. P. Lovecraft first encountered each other in the pages of amateur journalism. They were of an age; Tillery was born in 1899, and Lovecraft in 1890, and had both been recruited to the United Amateur Press Association, the smaller and younger of the two nationwide amateur journalism organizations in existence at the time, and from the first Lovecraft wrote admiringly of her poetry:

“A Garden of Silence and Roses” introduces to the firmament of amateur journalism a new star, in the person of Miss Annie Vyne Tillery, author of professionally published books and poems. Miss Tillery’s style is at once deep and delicate, pervaded throughout with a poetic fervour seldom observed in products of the youthful pen.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 2 (Nov 1914), CE 1.14

“The Dirge of the Great Atlantic”, by Anne Vyne Tillery Renshaw, is a grim and moving bit of verse, cast in the same primitively stirring metre which this author used in her professionally published poem, “The Chant of Iron”. Mrs. Renshaw possesses an enviable power to reach the emotions through the medium of the written word.
—H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 3 (Jan 1915), CE 1.20

Anne Tillery was educated at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., attended school in Baltimore and Dr. Curry’s Professional School (presumably Curry School of Expression, now Curry College). She had published a collection of verse, Moods, Mystical and Otherwise (1914), and was actively engaged as a writer and educator specializing in public speaking (then called “expression”) and English.

On 10 December 1914, Anne married Joseph Wilroy Renshaw, a lawyer, and became Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw. Her husband was either already involved in amateur journalism or became involved in it soon after, because in 1915 they launched their joint amateur journal Ole’ Miss (Anne having been raised in Mississippi, and both she and her husband were Southerners.) Lovecraft wrote of the new journal:

Ole’ Miss for March, edited by Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Renshaw, easily falls into the very front rank of the season’s amateur journals. In this number Mr. Joseph W. Renshaw makes his initial appearance before the members of the United, producing a very favourable impression with his pure, attractive prose. The introduction, credited in another column to Mr. Renshaw, is of graceful and pleasing character, recalling the elusively beautiful atmosphere of the Old South which is too soon passing away.
—H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 5 (May 1915), CE 1.40

Both Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw quickly began to rise in the ranks of the United; when Lovecraft was elected first vice president in 1915, Renshaw was elected second vice president, and the two collaborated on efforts to recruit new members to the cause of amateur journalism. He also served as assistant editor to Renshaw in the amateur journal Credential, which was aimed at new members (the first piece published by a new member was referred to as their “credential.”)

Despite being perhaps Lovecraft’s oldest and longest-lasting woman correspondent who was not a member of his family, the surviving letters between Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw are few. However, we know they must have had a fairly robust correspondence for the first few years of their acquaintance, because aside from amateur affairs  Lovecraft had joined with Renshaw and her friend Mrs. J. G. Smith in the Symphony Literary Service, a revision service where Lovecraft handled verse. It isn’t clear how long this service lasted, but it seems to have been Lovecraft’s foot in the door to freelance revision work and ghostwriting, which would become one of his major sources of income in life. The first few letters we have from Lovecraft and Renshaw date to the 1918 period, a mix of amateur affairs, poetical disputes (Lovecraft disliked free verse, while Renshaw was an advocate for free expression), and current affairs.

Lovecraft supported Renshaw during her successful candidacy in 1919 as Official Editor of the United, and she seems to have been otherwise keeping busy in teaching and publishing:

Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, with characteristic energy, has transferred her interests from State College, Pa., to Washington, D.C. During the autumn she was circulation manager of The Suffragist, a large illustrated monthly, whose subscription department she practically revitalised with her efficient management. She has now accepted a chair at Research University, becoming head of the English Department with the title of Professor. Mrs. Renshaw receives the sympathy of the Association upon the death of Mr. Renshaw in November, and upon the illness of her mother at the same time.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “News Notes” United Amateur 20, No. 2 (Nov 1920), CE 1.265

J. W. Renshaw died in November 1920, probably of pneumonia. We know little of their marriage; they had no children, and Mrs. Renshaw would never remarry. After his death, she was located primarily in Washington, D.C.; she met Lovecraft for the first time in 1921 in Boston. The suggestion she made that Lovecraft revise student work was apparently acted upon, because sometime later Lovecraft wrote:

Amateur journalism’s connexion with Penn State (circa 1919-22, if memory serves aright) was established through one of our members—a Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, now head of a school of elocution in Washington—who went there as an associate professor. She organised her classes into a literary club connected with the United Amateur Press Association, hence we of the Association handled a good deal of their work & assisted them to some extent in a critical way. [Fred Lewis] Pattee was there at the time, & Mrs. Renshaw sometimes spoke of him—indeed, she sent me a copy of his weird novel, “The House of the Black Ring.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Feb 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 258

Lovecraft and Renshaw met again in 1925 when he came as a tourist to Washington, where she drove him about on a sightseeing tour:

[…] our attention was distracted by a hail from the road, where was fast approaching the Renshaw car, with its owner, Sechrist, and a prepossessing gentlewoman of early middle age as occupants. Mrs. R. had, it seems, arriv’d at the Monument immediately after our departure; and having pickt up Sechrist, follow’d us along the course we had told him we wou’d take. With the years this lady hath become a person of much importance in Washington, being now a select teach of dramatic and oratorical method, and prominent in female political circles. (Republican) She is, however, wholly unspoilt; and shew’d extreme kindness in absenting herself from most of her guests and spending the whole day in the guidance of our party, despite the protests we mixt with our profound thanks. […] The car, being small, seated just the five persons present: Mrs. R. (Driving) and Miss D. in font, and myself, Sechrist, and Kirk (reading left to right) on the rear seat). […] There, in the mellow glow of an afternoon no longer young, Mrs. Renshaw deposited Kirk, Christ, and me upon the pavement for a pedestrian finale; herself driving off toward her ome with Miss Dashiel, accompany’d by the most profound and sincere gratitude of the voyagers. We apologised for our inability to accompany her and meet her other guests, as she had wished; but I regret that I have so far fail’d—amidst the rush of the past week—to write her and Sechrist those expressions of thanks and pleasure which urbanity demands.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 21 Apr 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.274-275, 286

We hear little of the Renshaw/Lovecraft correspondence over the next few years; both of them drifted away from the central role they had held in amateur affairs, and Mrs. Renshaw was herself busy with teaching and running her own school in Washington, D.C., where public speaking and oratory were key skills for politicians. It is possible that there were gaps in their correspondence, which might account for why so few letters survive; or that many of them simply concerned business matters which neither considered worth preserving; Lovecraft used the backs of some letters for writing drafts of his stories.

Still, she must have continued to push at least occasional revision work Lovecraft’s way:

[…] our old-time fellow-amateur Mrs. Renshaw has reappear’d on the horizon with a lot of overflow theme papers from her school to be criticis’d and graded. All this means cash for coach-drivers, of course—but it also means workand nothing repels and discourages me more than the latter.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Mar 1930, Selected Letters 3.130

While revision didn’t pay much, the amounts that Lovecraft did receive no doubt helped in part to fund his excursions to Florida, Louisiana, and Quebec.

It is hard to say at this point what exactly the relationship was between Anne Tillery Renshaw and H. P. Lovecraft. They were friends, certainly, but they do not appear to have had the sort of mentor-mentee relationship that Lovecraft had with some of the younger women writers, professional or amateur, that he would get to know. There is little doubt that Lovecraft saw Renshaw as a peer, and if they did not agree on everything, he seems to have respected her intelligence and the force of her arguments. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say what common ground they might have shared being writing & poetry in general, as Renshaw does not seem to have had any particular interest in weird fiction.

The commercial side of their dealings is harder to pin down, although it would become the focus of their final and most substantial surviving communications. Anne Tillery Renshaw was at this point dean of the Renshaw School of Speech, whose curriculum was based on the Curry Method (a system of public speaking that included a combination of technical exercises and encouragement to express real emotion and natural gestures), and she availed on Lovecraft to help write a textbook for a new course—much as she had proposed some fifteen years earlier, when they first met in Boston.

Lovecraft was already busy with other jobs in 1936, but agreed to take the work on—he needed the money. 

I now made an attempt to go on with the one revision job which I have not yet returned—in the hope that I might be able to perform at least part of it & receive remuneration therefor. Results remain doubtful, since the more original parts will need leisure & concentration. It is a text-book on English usage by Mrs. Renshaw—& most of my time today was spent in straightening out historical & mythological errors in the section where certain familiar allusions are explained.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, Diary for 29 March 1936, LFF 2.991

Notes on the massive revision job reoccur in Lovecraft’s letters throughout 1936, and the stress built up as Lovecraft required extensions on the original deadline.

I had a hell of a siege getting that Renshaw ghost-writing job done on time—the deadline having been extended a bit. The last chapter—where I had to dope out a complete reading course in literature, the sciences, & the arts, mentioning the latest text-books in fields covering the rapidly changing sciences–was the really killing part. At the end I had to work 60 hours without sleep—but I finally got the damn thing into the mails. There may be more to do on it yet—& the trivial detail of price is not yet settled. If Mrs. Renshaw tries to drive me under 200 bucks, she’s a cheap skate!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 363

As a matter of fact, owing to the lateness, Lovecraft only requested $100 for the massive job…and got it.

RenshawLetter

Read the whole letter at the John Hay Library

In fact, much of what Lovecraft had written was seriously abridged or cut from the final book, which was published as Well-Bred Speech (1936). Lovecraft performed the final revisions amiably enough:

Well—I am still working on that Renshaw text-book. The manuscript, considerably abridged, came back once more for revision, & now (am reading the printer’s proofs & catching a number of errors therein.) The job is being handled by the Standard Press of 930 H. St., N.W.—perhaps you know of it. It will have to be done & delivered by Nov. 5th, since the course involving the book opens on the 6th. Haste has made this job more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Oct 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 344

RenshawLetter2

Read the whole letter at the John Hay Library.

It is not clear whether Lovecraft and Renshaw corresponded during the final months of his life remaining to him, although his last, unfinished letter to James F. Morton in 1937 includes reference to the ordeal of getting the manuscript together.

Anne Tillery Renshaw continued to teach, lecture, and write until her death on 24 June 1944.

For twenty-two years of correspondence (1914-1936), very little survives. Ten letters from Lovecraft to Renshaw are published in The Letters of Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw, along with the previously unpublished sections of Well Bred Speech that Lovecraft wrote but were cut from the final product. Portions of six of these letters were previously published in the Arkham House Selected Letters. Eight letters & cards from Anne Tillery Renshaw to Lovecraft, all dating from 1935-1936, have been scanned and may be viewed online at the John Hay Library website.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft

 For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming; and who can say that such a nature does not open latent eyes sensitive to unsuspected worlds and orders of being?
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (1936)

From 28 July to 1 September 1936, R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft for what would be the final time. Barlow had just turned 18 the previous May, and his parent’s marriage was on the point of deterioration; the young man was destined to stay with relatives in Kansas City, and a brief term at the Kansas City Art Institute. But for over a month he roomed at the boarding house near Lovecraft’s home on 66 College Street, and it was presumably at this time that Lovecraft made some revisions to Barlow’s story “The Night Ocean.”

A few paragraphs of this story had first been published as “A Fragment” in The Californian Winter 1935 issue. The Californian was the amateur journal of Hyman Bradofsky, one to which Lovecraft and a few of his friends such as Natalie H. Wooley also contributed, and Lovecraft was luring Barlow into amateur journalism, at least for a brief spell. Lovecraft mentions “The Night Ocean” among items he hadn’t seen before Barlow’s visit (O Fortunate Floridian! 353), so it seems clear that this was a story Barlow had been working on for quite some time. There is some evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that Barlow was at loose ends during this period, trying many different things—art, writing, printing, poetry—to see where his talents were best suited, and this included writing a passel of fiction, some of it carefully, some of it hastily.

Lovecraft apparently showed some of these fictional efforts to August Derleth during or shortly after Barlow’s stay, including an intriguing piece titled “I Hate Queers” which does not appear to have survived. After passing along Derleth’s criticism, Lovecraft wrote:

Barlow appreciates your criticism immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wants to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him–but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—”The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion.—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.748

Lovecraft’s suggested revisions for “The Night Ocean” were somewhat uncharacteristically light. While we often think of Lovecraft essentially re-writing stories, in this case his changes only amount to less than 10% of the work. A typed manuscript with Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions survives, and is reproduced in facsimile in Lovecraft Annual #8. Barlow then prepared a fresh typescript incorporating most (but not all) of Lovecraft’s suggested revisions, which was submitted and accepted by Bradofsky, who published it in Winter 1936 issue of The Californian. In his letters, Lovecraft praised Barlow and the story:

Glad to know that you’ve been in touch with Kansas City’s brilliant new citizen, & hope you’ll be able to meet the little imp in person before long. He is certainly one of the brightest & most promising kids I have ever seen—gifted alike in literature, art, & various forms of craftsmanship—& despite his present scattering of energies in different fields I think he will go far in the end. His studies at the Art Institute will undoubtedly be very good for him, & help him to establish a sort of aesthetic orientation. Hope he’ll meet your uncle amidst the academic maze—though the size of the institution doubtless minimises the chances of accidental contact. Barlow has been growing fast in a literary as well as artistic way—as you doubtless deduced from his “Dim-Remembered Story” in The Californian. A still later tale of his—”The Night Ocean”, also scheduled for The Californianshows an even greater advance, being really one of the finest atmospheric studies ever written by a member of the group.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 21 Nov 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 213

As much as Lovecraft is sometimes held to include autobiographical elements in his stories, it’s hard not to see something of young Barlow in the the nameless narrator; a sensitive artist who holds himself apart from the crude masses of normal people. Whose sensitive soul opens him to vague fears when they finally achieve the isolation they had thought they wanted:

That the place was isolated I have said, and this at first pleased me; but in that brief evening hour when the sun left a gore-splattered decline and darkness lumbered on like an expanding shapeless blot, there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

Massimo Barruti, who has examined “The Night Ocean” in the greatest depth in his book Dim-Remembered Stories: A Critical Study of R. H. Barlow notes that the story is a “textbook example of the extreme sensitiveness and poetic attitude of Barlow’s personality” (102)—the mental degeneration brought by isolation and a too-active imagination causes the protagonist to question reality, even as he populates his nighttime seashore with nameless terrors. Imagine an Innsmouth without any Deep Ones, yet none the less haunting for their absence, to one of sufficient temperament to imagine croaking voices by night, or hear something sinister in the splash of water.

“The Night Ocean” is Barlow at his most Lovecraftian. He never tries to pastiche Lovecraft exactly, or to tie his artist’s strange fears, longing, and imagined horrors into anything from Lovecraft’s nascent Mythos, although readers can certainly draw such connections themselves. Instead, Barlow reproduces the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, tries to capture and express the cosmicism—perhaps in homage to his mentor, perhaps as a reflection to how much of an influence Lovecraft had on him. Brian Humphreys explored this in detail in “‘The Night Ocean’ and the Subtleties of Cosmicism” in Lovecraft Studies #30. One thing that Humphreys notes is: “He has left society to be alone, yet feels lonely in his solitude” (18).

Which could well be said of Barlow himself.

While he has achieved a posthumous notoriety as one of Lovecraft’s homosexual friends and correspondents, Barlow does not seem to have expressed his sexuality in his published fiction in any overt manner, or even by obvious metaphor or allegory. There might have been something in “I Hate Queers” that addressed his experience as a closeted homosexual growing up in a very homophobic society, but that piece no longer appears to be extant…and it is worth a little digression to ask what we know about Barlow’s sexuality and how we know it.

Like several of Lovecraft’s young proteges, Barlow became an active homosexual. His homosexuality, however, may not have developed until after Lovecraft’s death; at least, Lovecraft apparently never knew of his young friend’s deviation.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 190

As far as I have been able to determine, de Camp was the first writer to publicly “out” Barlow as homosexual. Lovecraft never mentions this in his letters, nor does E. Hoffmann Price in his memoirs The Book of the Dead mentions Barlow in California, but gives no hint of homosexuality, and none of the memorial pieces after Barlow’s passing mention it. Given the atmosphere of prejudice regarding homosexuality at the time, if any of those who knew Barlow did know about his sexuality, they might have deliberately avoided mention to preserve his memory and reputation. That being said, rumors of Barlow’s sexuality had apparently been circulating for some time within some circles:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.
—August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

Derleth had not met either Whitehead or Barlow in person; it is possible that his intuition on Barlow’s sexuality was based entirely on the “I Hate Queers” manuscript and his own experiences. While this is speculative, it could be that the story dealt with a homosexual man who assumed a homophobic persona to better conceal his own sexuality. While this might seem like a stretch, in Barlow’s 1944 autobiographical essay he recalls something of this mindset:

Once I saw a man bring a sailor up to his room and thought of protesting to the management. A blond clerk and a Basque elevator boy—man, rather—caught my eye, and I took them out once or twice to drink at my expense.
—R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” in O Fortunate Floridian! 411

This autobiographical essay is the most singularly definitive proof we have of Barlow’s sexuality; he very clearly describes his interests, even if he does not record any detailed encounters. When describing his stay with Claire and Groo Beck in California, he wrote:

I could not decide which of the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. He had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, dressed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage. (ibid. 410)

It’s not clear if de Camp read this essay among Barlow’s papers, or whether he picked up the rumors about Barlow’s sexuality. There are many inaccuracies in de Camp’s rendering of Lovecraft and other figures, so it is not beyond the pale to think that de Camp presented rumors as fact. His last word on Barlow in the book is a good example of what he could write without citing any sources:

All this time, however, Barlow energetically pursued his career as a homosexual lover. This was long before Gay Liberation, and Mexico has been if anything less tolerant of sexual deviation than the United States. On January 2, 1951, Barlow killed himself with an overdose of sedatives, because he was being blackmailed for his relations with Mexican youths.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 431-432

This interpretation of Barlow’s death has since become generally accepted, mainly because no one else has come up with a better reason for Barlow’s suicide at about the height of his career. William S. Burroughs who was present in Mexico at the time and commented on Barlow’s suicide does mention that Barlow was “queer”, but does not mention blackmail. Barlow himself asserts in his autobiography that by 1944 he had “a good part of the material things I have desired—money, sex, a small reputation for ability […]” (O Fortunate Floridian! 407) so de Camp’s assertion is not impossible—merely unconfirmed, and perhaps unconfirmable.

Questions of how “out” Barlow was remain essentially unanswered. He did not, for the most part, grow up in any urban area which might have had an active homosexual subculture to be out in; and what can be reconstructed of his adult life shows him very candid about his sexuality but also not, apparently, flaunting it. The earliest possible hint of his burgeoning sexuality might have been an entry in his 1933 diary for May 23:

Back at George’s again, when he & Si arrived, Si went calmly about cleaning up, in a semi-nude condition. It is perhaps indiscreet to record such observations on paper, for my meaning might be misconstrued, but he looked lovely and young and strong and clean…He is a fine boy; the nicest, I believe, I have ever known. Too, he treats me decently, something no other has ever done.

It isn’t clear who “Si” is, although apparently George and Si are neighbors of the 15 year-old Barlow in or around Deland, Florida. If this is an indication of Barlow’s early awareness of his sexuality, it predated his first meeting with Lovecraft in 1934.

Which brings us back, after a long digression, to Barlow and “The Night Ocean.” Because however much of himself Barlow may have poured into the story, the mood he captured regards that which is not simply mysterious, but unknowable. There are secrets which we cannot fathom, no matter how hard we try…and the narrator accepts this as something essential to the very nature of the sea itself:

The night ocean withheld whatever it had nurtured. I shall know nothing more.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

There is much about R. H. Barlow’s life that we will never know; no matter what bits and pieces wash upon the beach for us to find, there are some things we cannot know. Why did he take his own life? Who did de Camp get his information from? Did Lovecraft ever pick up on his young friend’s sexuality? Shapes in the waves as the sun sets, shadows on the water that suggest more than they define. “The Night Ocean” is not a metaphor for Barlow’s life; he could not know when he wrote it in 1935-1936 what the skein of his career would be, in terms of who he would become Barlow had hardly been born yet. Yet it is a very Lovecraftian story…and R. H. Barlow lived, and ultimately died, a very Lovecraftian death.

“The Night Ocean” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft may be read for free online here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof

It is, unquestionably, the product of the lost dinosaur’s egg that has somehow, somewhere, mysteriously hatched itself. We believed them to be petrified in the rock, yet in some miraculous way the germ of life was not destroyed.
—Katherine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After” in Weird Tales November 1930

It was her only story in Weird Tales, though she wrote for other magazines; and had books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. H. P. Lovecraft might have run across her work before, in Ghost Stories or the Argosy All-Story, though if he did he never mentioned it. Yet what brought her to Lovecraft’s attention, and the reason why he wrote about Katharine Metcalf Roof at all in his letters, is because of this tale—which earned the cover illustration in this issue—and that ties in to events that had occurred long years before, and some of the most important discoveries in the history of early paleontology.

It begins with one of H. P. Lovecraft’s first trips to New York in 1922, where he visited with his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr:

Monday Long & I explored the American Museum of Natural History—examining it in far greater detail than did Kleiner & I a couple of weeks ago. Long appreciates science & nature more than Kleiner does—he is a marvellous kid, far above the average “amateur journalist” type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.63-64

While innocuous, it was apparently during this trip that Long or Lovecraft conceived of a story…one that would germinate for some years without being written. Lovecraft would chide his friend:

Grandpa thought he’d write and tell you that he hath just perused Wells’ Thirty Strange Stories! Magnificent plots, but how prosaically handled when one compares them to Machen’s work! I do not think Aepyornis Island anticipates your dinosaur egg story, and advise you to write the latter. Think of the difference—the dinosaur belongs to aeons immemorially remote and unconnected with anything in human experience, whilst the museum-cellar hatching can be handled with a creepiness wholly alien to anything in wells. Your idea is far the stronger, and Grandpa will spank you if you don’t write your story like a nice boy!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 26 Jan 1924, Selected Letters 1.287

The Æpyornis maximus was a large flightless bird native to Madagascar; in “Æpyornis Island” (1895) by H. G. Wells, a fossil hunter collecting some of the eggs of the supposedly extinct animal is surprised when it hatches. Such “living fossil” stories sometimes caught the imagination, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), and dinosaurs in a variety of settings were far from strangers in the pages of Weird Tales.

Yet dinosaur eggs were cutting edge news at the time. In the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews carried out the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, including fossil-hunting in the until-then largely inaccessible Gobi desert of Mongolia. In 1923 he discovered the first dinosaur eggs and nests, which in time were shipped back to the museum in New York…there to whet the imaginations of H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long.

Sunday we answered advertisements and hoped for the best, but Monday we decided to have some fun whilst life might last, so went to the American Museum of Natural History. Here we lingered over the illuminated bird displays […] and noted in passing the famous dinosaur eggs discovered by the museum’s Mongolian expedition. The latter were not impressive—being the eggs of a very small dinosaur, the ancestor of the later massive species.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.147

Lovecraft encouraged his friend to write the story, but Long did not, whether from lack of interest or fear of plagiarizing Wells’ plot is unknown. The idea sat, unused. In 1928, another visit is recorded:

I rose at noon & went up to Sonny’s to meet our client Mrs. Reed, who was in town Sun. & Mon. She seems quite prepossessing & intelligent. After her departure Sonny & I went to the Nat. Hist. Museum, where we both bought 25¢ dinosaur paperweights.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 May 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 676

Perhaps this visit encouraged Lovecraft to think of writing the story himself. In 1928 he recorded in his Commonplace Book, where he jotted down many story ideas: “What hatches from primordial egg.” (36)

Yet Lovecraft & Long did not write the story. Ultimately, Katharine Metcalf Roof did.

This vexed Lovecraft to no end.

The dinosaur’s egg story was simply a minus quantity—but it made me curse, because I thought of that same plot just eight years ago (before any real dinosaurs’ eggs were discovered) & urged kid Belknap to develop it in connexion with his beloved American Museum, within walking distance of which he’s lived all his young life. I went so far as to make inquiries of a sub-curator as to whether dinosaurs probably laid real eggs, or whether they were semi-viviparous like some other reptilia. On being told that they were probably truly oviparous, I renewed my urging that Belknap write the tale, but just about that time he read Wells’ “Æpyornis Island”, & thought that any prehistoric-egg story would just constitute a plagiarism. I told him that such an idea was nonsense—& just then the news came of the finding of the first actual dinosaur eggs by an expedition from Belknap’s own pet museum! Afterward I thought of writing the tale myself, though I always shelved the idea in favour of others. And now comes the miserable hash—so poor that nothing but its idea could possibly have won it first place & cover-design. If only Belknap or I had gone ahead & written a real story on the theme! Heaven knows—I may yet, for the idea is none the less mine because of this independent use—or abuse—of it. But if I do use the primordial egg idea, I may introduce variants. Perhaps it won’t bring forth a dinosaur at all, but instead, a hellish half-man of the pre-human Tsathogguan period!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 245-246

But what makes me maddest about this issue, damn it, is the dinosaur’s egg story given first place and cover design. Rotten—cheap—puerile—yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn’t Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? Didn’t Grandpa go and ask at the American Museum about dinosaur eggs (then known only hypothetically) to see whether they were hard or soft, and didn’t he tell flaming youth to write a nightmare of a yarn about what lumbered about in the museum basement at night? And then didn’t a timid youth go and refuse to do it just because he’d read H. G. Wells’ Æpyornis Island? Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn’t so afraid of the subject—and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honour that Young Genoa might have had! Now, Sir, let this teach you not to be so scareful about general similarities in future! You ought to know that the style is the thing, and that subject-matter is relatively immaterial, It’s the development which makes a tale one’s own or not one’s own. Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 17 Oct 1930, Selected Letters 3.186-187

Nor was Lovecraft entirely alone in this opinion of Roof’s tale:

The “dinosaur egg” was truly rotten;—and I don’t blame you for cursing. I, too, would go ahead and use the idea, which could certainly be developed to great advantage by a good writer.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 255

Was all of this opprobrium appropriate? Did Roof deserve the ruing of Lovecraft & co.? It is hardly unusual for two writers to run across the same basic idea; Lovecraft would run into a similar situation with the revision tale “Winged Death” (1934).

There is some fairness to the criticism. Roof’s story is told with a certain disarming prosaic quality; the thieves speak like characters that wandered in from Black Mask or some other hardboiled pulp, the Irish-American moonshiners have a certain rusticity and more than a touch of ethnic stereotype to them. The story is not at all long, and the mystery is scarcely that, for even though Roof refrains from calling it a dinosaur until near the end, there seems little else that the giant reptile could be—and even if there was, the cover is a bit of a dead giveaway. The entire mechanism by which the egg managed to hatch is left unexplained; the critter remains undiscovered and grows to prodigious size within months. It’s final death by a chance bullet—and its remains destroyed by another chance—are almost deus ex machina. Even the title is a bit of a misnomer—although in this case, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright often changed titles on authors and might have been responsible for that.

If you compare “A Million Years After” with “The Dunwich Horror”—another story which features a large, dangerous, and exotic entity encountering a rural community—some of the reasons the story fails to resonate become apparent. There’s little sense of horror conveyed by the dinosaur, for all that the rural folks are scare of it; the description is at once both too much and insufficient. We never get a clear idea of what species of dinosaur it even is: the creature is reptilian and dwells in a swamp; has a huge body, a snake-like neck with a small head, claws on its feat, spotted skin instead of scales, and…most oddly…runs on its hind legs! While the cover depicts a sauropod, especially the early depictions of such creatures, the combination of features doesn’t quite line up.

The best that could be said about the story is that the bones of a good idea are there. The idea of a living dinosaur of titanic size, extinct for millions of years, has serious legs…as was proved in the film The Lost World (1925), and would be proved again by King Kong (1933), inaugurating a number of monster movies and creature features. Lovecraft himself saw both films, and was impressed by the stop-motion animation that brought the dinosaurs and giant ape to life:

I shall, I think, see “The Lost World” two weeks hence, for it is coming to the Strand at fairly popular prices. This palaeontological phantasy charmed me as a story some fifteen or more years ago, & I have wanted to see it ever since it was presented as a cinema. What a writer Doyle was before he went to seed as a dupe of spirit-mediums! Lost worlds have always been a favourite theme of mine, & I shall treat them more than once before I lay down my fictional pen for ever. The novelette I have mapped out, & which will probably be the next thing I shall write, deals largely with strange vestiges of a past primordial & horrible beyond expression. To me there is no one subject in literature so fascinating as chronological disarrangement—the conquest of time & Nature, & the momentary bringing together of two ages infinities apart.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 23 Sep 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.410

Yes—I shall see “The Lost World” this week, & know I shall enjoy it. Those of our gang who saw it are still marvelling over the impressive cleverness of the mechanical effects.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 4 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.436

I may do likewise with “King Kong” if its prehistoric life scenes are as good as those in “The Lost World”—which I say in 1925.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 134

Since last writing you I have seen “King Kong” (good mechanical effects) & “Madchen in Uniform.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 Jul 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 141

“A Million Years After” has never been reprinted, except in facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. The story’s author Katharine Metcalf Roof remains mostly unknown today, and there are no collections of her pulp fiction. It might well be claimed that she had little impact on weird fiction, and is basically forgotten.

Except…in early 1931, only a couple months after “A Millions Years After” came out, H. P. Lovecraft did begin to write a story that involved a strange survival from hundreds of millions of years in the past, that was awakened by a group of scientists after a long hibernation. There was no egg, and it wasn’t a dinosaur, but as he said to Clark Ashton Smith, it was an utterly alien form of life…

The story was At the Mountains of Madness.

While “A Million Years After” surely isn’t the only inspiration for the story, the timing is such that maybe—just maybe—it was Roof’s handling of the idea of the ancient survival that gave Lovecraft the impetus to put his ideas on paper.

“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof can be read for free online here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Sin-Eater” (1895) by Fiona Macleod

Now, we are a scattered band. The Breton’s eyes are slowly turning from the sea, and slowly his ears are forgetting the whisper of the wind around Menhir and Dolmen. The Cornishman has lost his language, and there is now no bond between him and his ancient kin. The Manxman has ever been the mere yeoman of the Celtic chivalry; but even his rude dialect perishes year by year. In Wales, a great tradition survives; in Ireland, a supreme tradition fades through sunset-hued horizons to the edge o’ dark; in Celtic Scotland, a passionate regret, a despairing love and longing, narrows yearly before a bastard utilitarianism which is almost as great a curse to our despoiled land as Calvinistic theology has been and is.
—Fiona Macleod, “From Iona” in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), 11-12

It was called alternately the Celtic Twilight and the Celtic Revival. The languages and cultures of the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the British Isles was rapidly fading in response to the events of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century; spreading industrialization, transportation and emigration, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, accelerated the decline of the Gaelic languages in favor of English, which had become the language of government, literature, and trade in the United Kingdom—and, before the breakup of the British Empire, throughout the world.

Against this decline rose varied movements; some aimed to preserve and promulgate the declining language and customs, such as the gorsedds in Wales, while the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th/early 20th century sought to raise awareness of Irish literature and writers. Common cause was made between Gaelic speakers based on mutual interest in languages, lore, and preservation of rapidly-disappearing ways of life. The Celtic Revival filtered across the Atlantic to the United States in many forms; W. B. Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), reprints of James Macpherson’s Ossian and the novels of Sir Walter Scot, the fantasies of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, the weird tales of Arthur Machen…and, though often forgotten today, the weird works of Scottish writer William Sharp, who also wrote as Fiona Macleod.

Sharp was already a relatively successful author whose books of poetry and realistic novels in the 1880s had progressed to the point where by 1890-1891 he could support himself full-time as a writer and editor. He and his wife went on a trip to Italy, where he found a muse in the form of Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder (Alaya 125), and the inspiration for a new literary persona.

Anyone might than have observed something different about Sharp. His creative voice was stronger, all his work more passionate and vital. And those who knew him intimately knew also that it was in the years immediately following his return from Italy that Sharp began, quietly but steadfastly, to produce the work later to be attributed to the pen of Fiona Macleod.
—Flavia Alaya, William Sharp—”Fiona Macleod” 1855-1905 (1970), 97

Sharp had previously tried on other literary voices, H. P. Siwaärmill, W. H. Brooks, and COuntess Ilse von Jaromar, but works under these names failed to gather attention. Fiona Macleod was created not just as a female voice for Sharp’s fiction, but a distinctly Scottish one; Sharp was at this point becoming more aware of himself as a Scot, and of the importance of Scottish Gaelic and folklore. It also provided an outlet for Sharp’s more occult leanings; he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and an associate of Wiliam Butler Yeats on the “Celtic Mysteries” project, which involved trance workings (Talking to the Gods, 23, 36), and “second sight” and prophecy would find their way into Macleod’s work (Alaya 190).

The degree to which Sharp identified with Fiona Macleod has been a point among his biographers, up to and including his wife, who quoted from one of his letters:

…I can write out of my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp, and indeed I could not do so if I were the woman Fiona Macleod is supposed to be, unless veiled in scrupulous anonymity…

This rape sense of oneness with nature, this cosmic ecstasy and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is. … My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions and dreams, must find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way.
William Sharp (Fiona Macleod) A Memoir (1910) 227

The ruse was more than skin-deep; from 1894 onwards he maintained two simultaneous and distinct writing careers, one as Sharp and the other as Macleod, answering letters “in character,” having his sister write out manuscripts in a woman’s handwriting, mailing letters to himself from “Fiona Macleod,” careful that he and his wife would always talk about “Fiona” as if she was a separate entity to avoid a slip, etc. The stress of the dual existence increased during his later years; Sharp forbore applying for a civil list pension because it would require revealing his authorship…and there may have been additional reasons.

Terry L. Meyers in The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp (1996), traces some of the subtle issues of gender identity and sexuality that Sharp expressed in his letters and fiction. A fierce advocate for gender equality, Meyers also traces themes of possible homosexual and transgender thought in his work and affiliations with other Victorian writers. Full expression or exploration of these feelings would have been difficult or impossible; Oscar Wilde being a prime example of the consequences of being found out. It is perhaps notable that in 1898 Sharp served on the Free Press Defence Committee formed to defend Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion from prosecution for obscenity (Meyers 18).

While it is impossible at this remove to say definitely whether Sharp was homosexual, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, or somewhere else on the spectrum, the combination of a strong feminine voice and a focus on authentic Scottish Gaelicisms came together to acclaim in the novels Pharais (1894), The Mountain Lovers (1895), and Green Fire (1896) to positive critical appraisal—sometimes eclipsing that of Sharp under his own name. Yet for all of Macleod’s literary output, the collection of short stories The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), particularly the title story, has come to be the most impactful—albeit in a way that Sharp/Macleod could not have foreseen, unless they really did have the Sight.

Alaya describes The Sin-Eater stories as “semi-autobiographical tales”; and there is in them a combination of authentic folklore, realistic portrayals of the lives of the Scottish people (warts and all), and perhaps above all a strong focus on Scottish Gaelic language. Macleod captures not just the somewhat stereotypical cadence of a way of thought and speaking, but makes knowledge of Gaelic a point of identity. Many phrases and a few special passages are in Gaelic, often with translation but some left au natural with only the context to guide the English reader. Yet it is telling when it is written:

The man had used the English when first he spoke, but as though mechanically. Supposing that he had not been understood, he repeated his question in the Gaelic.

After a minute’s silence the old woman answered him in the native tongue, but only to put a question in return.

“I am thinking it is a long time since you have been in Iona?”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater” in The Best Psychic Stories (1920), 127

Frank Belknap Long gifted a copy of The Best Psychic Stories to H. P. Lovecraft c.1923; the editor was Joseph Lewis French, an industrious editor and anthologist developed a reputation for weird anthologies beginning with Great Ghost Stories (1918) and The Best Ghost Stories (1919), and would go on to edit several more anthologies in that vein in the 1920s. The introduction was by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., author of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). French doesn’t mention Fiona Macleod’s alter ego, although the secret had been out a decade or so at that point; Scarborough doesn’t mention it in her brief introduction either, although her 1917 opus refers to Macleod as “Sharp’s other literary self” (65).

It isn’t clear if Lovecraft himself knew that Sharp was Macleod at that point—but it had apparently crossed his radar at a particularly good time for a little story he was working on titled “The Rats in the Walls:”

That bit of gibberish which immediately followed the atavistic Latin was not pithecanthropoid. The first actual ape-cry was the “ungl”. What the intermediate jargon is, is perfectly good Celtica bit of venomously vituperative phraseology which a certain small boy ought to know; because his grandpa, instead of consulting a professor to get a Celtic phrase, found a ready-made one so apt that he lifted it bodily from The Sin-Eater, by Fiona McLeod [sic], in the volume of Best Psychic Stories which Sonny himself generously sent! I thought you’d note that at once—but youth hath a crowded memory. Anyhow, the only objection to the phrase is that it’s Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as—with anthropology—details don’t count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference.
H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 8 Nov 1923, Selected Letters 1.258

Scottish and Irish Gaelic are Goidelic (Q-Celtic) languages; Welsh (Cymric) is P-Celtic. Different branches of the same linguistic family tree, but not mutually comprehensible. Lovecraft had borrowed a Scottish Gaelic phrase and put it where a Welsh phrase should be. As it happened, Lovecraft was correct. No one noticed the slip when the story was published in Weird Tales in March 1924. However, when the story was reprinted in the June 1930 issue, it came under the eye of a Celtophile who had made some effort to learn Irish Gaelic—Robert E. Howard of Texas. As Lovecraft later told the story:

As for the languages represented in the atavistic passage—I don’t recall including Sanscrit [sic], though I did lift a sentence of Celtic (of which I know not a single word) from another story, “The Sin-Eater”, by “Fiona McLeod” (William Sharp). This sentence, incidentally, was what brought me into correspondence with Robert E. Howard. It was—since I swiped it from a Scottish story—a Gaelic specimen, whereas of course the Celtic language of southern Britain was Cymric. R.E.H.—as an expert Celtic antiquarian—noticed the discrepancy, & thought I had adopted a minor theory that a Gaelic wave had preceded the coming of the Cymri to Britannia. He wrote Wright on the subject, & Wright forwarded the letter to me—whereupon I felt obliged to drop a line to the mighty Conan exposing my own ignorance & confessing to my rather inept borrowing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 2 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 47

Much as I admired him, I had no correspondence with him till 1930—for I was never a guy to butt in on people. In that year her read the reprint of my Rats in the Walls and instantly spotted the bit of harmless fakery whereby I had lifted a Celtic phrase (for use as an atavistic exclamation) from a footnote to an old classic—The Sin-Eater, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp). He didn’t realise the source of the phrase, but his sharp eye for Celtic antiquities told him it didn’t quite fit—being a Gaelic (not Cymric) expression assigned to a South British locale. I myself don’t know a word of any Celtic tongue, and never fancied anybody could spot the incongruity. Too charitable to suspect me of ignorant appropriation, he came to the conclusion that I followed a now-discredited theory whereby the Gaels were supposed to have preceded the Cymri in England—and wrote Satrap Pharnabazus [Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright] a long and scholarly letter on the subject. Farny passed this on to me—and I couldn’t rest easy until I had set the author right. Hence I dropped REH a line confessing my ignorance and telling him that I had merely picked a phrase with the right meaning from a note to a Scottish story while perfectly well aware that the language of Celtic South-Britain was really somewhat different.
—H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 5 Jul 1936, Selected Letters 5.277

Howard’s letters show that in 1929 and early 1930 his reading was turning increasingly to Irish history, with long letters to Harold Preece and Tevis Clyde Smith on Celtic history and language. It was perhaps this focus which made Howard so sensitive to Lovecraft’s use of language in “The Rats in the Walls”—as given in his letter to Wright:

As to the climax, the maunderings of the maddened victim is like a sweep of horror down the eons, dwindling back and back to be finally lost in those grisly mists of world-birth where the mind of man refuses to follow. And I note from the fact that Mr. Lovecraft has his character speaking Gaelic instead of Cymric, in denoting the Age of the Druids, that he holds to Lhuyd’s theory as to the settling of Britain by the Celts.

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. Baxter, the highly learned author of Glossario Antiquae Britanniae upholds this theory on the grounds that the Brigantes, supposed to be the first Celtic settlers in Britain, were unacquainted with the “p” sound, which was not used in Britain until the advent of the Brythonic or Cymric peoples. According to this, the Brigantes were a Goidhelic tribe, and Lhuyd’s point seems proven.

Personally, I hold to the theory of Cymric precedence, and believe that Brythonic tribes inhabited, not only Britain and Scotland before the coming of the Gaels, but Ireland as well. The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time.
—Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Collected Letters 2.42-43

Howard’s specific source for this argument appears to be O’Donovan and O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary (1864 ed.). We know Howard had this volume, as he cites in a subsequent letter to Lovecraft (CL2.70), and it seems to be the source for some of his Irish language comments in prior letters (cf. CL2.7, 20-21, 22-23). This passage in particular jives with the content of Howard’s letter:

Mr. Baxter (in Glossario Antiquæ Birtanniæ, p. 90) remarks, that the oldest Brigantes, whom he esteems the first inhabitants of Britain, never used in their language the sound of the letter p, which was afterwards introduced by the Belgic Britains. If the old Brigantes were really of the first inhabitants of Britain, it would follow, that they were a part of the Guidelian, or Gaulish colony, which went over to Ireland, and whom Mr. Lhuyd evidently proves to have been the first inhabitants of all that part of Great Britain which now comprehends England and Wales.
“Remarks on the Letter P” in An Irish-English Dictionary 399-400)

Lovecraft’s response is now lost, but that exchange began a correspondence that would last until Robert E. Howard took his own life in 1936; Lovecraft would still mourn his Texas friend until his own death in 1937. It is notable that while the first couple of letters are lost their collected correspondence, A Means to Freedom begins with both men deep into British Celtic history, and their wide-ranging letters spin out from there—but this period would always inform Lovecraft’s image of Robert E. Howard as a scholar and enthusiast for Gaelic language and culture. It is possible that Lovecraft’s high opinion of Howard helped overcome Lovecraft’s lingering prejudices regarding the Irish and “Celtic peoples,” who in the early 20th century still faced racial and ethnic discrimination.

No where in the surviving letters do Howard and Lovecraft discuss William Sharp or Fiona Macleod. The first time that Lovecraft acknowledges Sharp and Macleod as the same individual is in 1929:

The lines of William Sharp (who, by the way, has written some remarkable weird material under the pseudonym of “Fiona MacLeod” [sic]) are highly potent despite their simplicity. I have followed the draining of Lacus Nemorensis with great interest, though without much hope that anything valuable will be discovered on Caligula’s galleys.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 15 Apr 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 57

Lovecraft refers to “The Lake of Nemi” in Sharp’s volume of poetry Sospiri di Roma (1891)—which is, coincidentally, a product of the same trip to Italy in which Fiona Macleod was born in Sharp’s mind. Benito Mussolini had begun a project to drain Lake Nemi (Lacus Nemorensis), which Sharp had visited. So sometime between 1923 and 1929, Lovecraft discovered that Fiona Macleod was William Sharp…and had read enough of Macleod’s fiction to praise it, if only briefly. It is a pity that Lovecraft doesn’t expand on the subject at any length in his letters; he doesn’t even mention Macleod or Sharp in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and Lovecraft could scarcely have faulted Sharp for using Macleod as a pseudonym, considering Lovecraft had written under the name Elizabeth Berkeley himself.

It may be worthwhile to look at the infamous borrowing in context:

Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ’Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? … Magna Mater! Magna Mater! … Atys … Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodaun … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! … Ungl … ungl … rrrlh … chchch ….
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”

“But, Andrew Blair, I will say this: when you fair abroad, Droch caoidh ort! and when you go upon the water, Gaoth gun direadh ort! Ay, ay, Anndra-mhic-Adam, Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!”†

† Droch caoidh ort! “May a fatal accident happen to you” (lit. “bad moan on you”). Gaoth gun direadh ort! “May you drift to your drowning” (lit. “wind without direction on you”). Dia ad aghaidh, etc., “God against thee and in thy face … and may a death of woe be yours … Evil and sorrow to the and thine!”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” The Best Psychic Stories 146

Delapore’s speech devolves from contemporary English (“Curse you, Thornton”) to Elizabethan English (“‘Sblood, thou stinkard”) to Old English (“wolde ye swynke” i.e. “would you belabor me like this?”) to Latin (“Magna Mater!” i.e “Great Mother”) to Gaelic (“Dia ad aghaidh”) and finally prehuman speech (“Ungl.”) As Lovecraft had no knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, he accidentally copied the spelling error (“aodaun” for “aodann”) in The Best Psychic Stories version of the text.

In Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” the speech is given not so much as a curse but as a deliberate insult by the eponymous Sin-Eater Neil Ross who is already, though he knows it not, doomed. There is something of a parallel to the two speeches in that regard: both men who speak it are destined to be consumed by madness, driven to their fate by old family sins and quite literal consumption. While it is probably too much to say that “The Sin-Eater” inspired “The Rats in the Walls,” it is likely that Lovecraft might have been struck by the parallels…and the bit of luck that put such an appropriate choice of phrase in his way.

The phrase and the story can only exist in the wider context of the Celtic Twilight, and of Sharp’s assumption of the literary identity of Fiona Macleod; the very focus on Celtic languages and culture which was the focus of Sharp’s purpose in writing and publishing as Macleod in turn directly led to Lovecraft’s correspondence with Robert E. Howard, based on his awareness of and interest in Celtic languages and history.

An odd legacy for Fiona Macleod—yet perhaps oddly appropriate.

“The Sin-Eater” by Fiona Macleod can be read online for free here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know?
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist, humanist, social reformer, lecturer and writer. She was born in Connecticut, and spent much of her early life in Providence, Rhode Island, H. P. Lovecraft’s home town. Like Lovecraft she had limited formal education, but was a prodigious autodidact. As with many of the more famous writers of his day, Lovecraft’s brush with Gilman was one-sided: his letters attest to an awareness of her work and as an individual, but her letters and diaries do not mention Lovecraft. His work, limited mostly to the pulps and the amateur press, either did not rise to her notice or did not merit comment.

At one point, however, there might have been a stronger connection:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is the sole fictional effort of the feminist & social worker Charlotte Perkins Gilman—whom, by the way, my mother knew in youth. It is a most insidiously potent tale of the aura of madness, & was included by William Dean Howells in his anthology of American Short Story masterpieces.
H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Jan 1927, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 31

My mother knew her well-since as plain Charlotte Perkins she used to be governess in the home of some friends of ours. Later her first husband was the Providence artist Stetson. She always had an affected, eccentric streak of self-conscious intellectuality.
H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

In 1883, Charlotte Anna Perkins was living in Providence, Rhode Island. She had been working as a teacher or tutor, and recounts:

I gave drawing lessons to a boy and a girl, the girl died, and the lonely little brother begged to have me come and stay with him. So I tried governessing, for ten weeks, and learned more about the servant question in that time than most of us ever find out.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography 69

According to her letters, the clients were Dr. and Mrs. Jackson of Providence; the boy was Eddie. The 1880 census lists a Walter Marsh Jackson, physician; wife, Amelia (Amy) Jackson, daughter Isabel Jackson (died 1883, age 13), and son Edward P. Jackson. The Jacksons are buried in Swan Point Cemetery, where H. P. Lovecraft and the Phillips family are also buried.

Charlotte Perkins’ ten weeks as governess of Eddie began on 16 July 1883, and part of it was spent in Maine. Sarah Susan Phillips (1857-1921) in 1881 was living at the family home, 194 Angell St. The Jacksons are the most likely candidates for a mutual acquaintance with the future Mrs. Lovecraft, but Gilman’s letters of the period do not reference a Mrs. Phillips or her sisters—so the connection is tenuous. It is interesting to note that there are two surviving letters sent by Gilman from 207 Angell St., which is less 100 yards from the Phillips’ home, so it is not impossible that the then Charlotte Perkins and Susie Lovecraft might have met on the street, or had other acquaintances in common at the time.

Their lives diverged. In May 1884, Charlotte Perkins married her first husband, the Providence artist Charles Stetson. Their daughter Katharine Stetson was born eleven months later in 1885. Her periodic depressions deepened after the birth, and in April 1887 she broke down. Women’s medicine at the time was dominated by sexist attitudes; she submitted for a period to the “rest cure” of neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, but…well, as she puts it so elegantly:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live a domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long a I lived.” This was in 1897.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

I then, using the remnant of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work againwork, the normal life of every human being; work , in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was actually written in 1890, and finally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and there is a degree of myth-making in some of Gilman’s later claims about the story, as explored by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow-Wallpaper” (2010), but that is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that by the time Lovecraft first mentions the story in his letters in 1926, “The Yellow Wallpaper” had already been established as a story of note.

Your plan for a weird bibliography is splendid, & I hope to see it carried into effect. Such a thing ought to include not only books but isolated tales in magazines as well; since some veritable masterpieces have never got beyond that form. Single tales in anthologies, also, (like Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in Howells’ collection) merit citation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Dec 1926, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 26

It’s not clear when Lovecraft first read the story, but starting in 1925 he began an intensive course of reading weird fiction to write his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), so it is possible he read it during that period. The anthology he mentions is The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (1920), edited by William Dean Howells. In his introduction, Howells writes of Gilman’s story:

It wanted at least two generations to freeze our young blood with Mrs. Perkins Gilman’s story of The Yellow Wall Paper, which Horace Scudder (then of The Atlantic) said in refusing it that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed. But terrible and too wholly dire it was, I could not rest until I had corrupted the editor of The New England Magazine into publishing it. Now that I have got it into my collection here, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed. (vii)

Lovecraft’s response is withering:

Am surprised that Howells was concerned in a venture like this, since ordinarily he was old-womanishly opposed to the really gruesome & terrible. He made an absurd apology for including Mrs. Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in an anthology he edited.
H. L. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Sep 1927, Essential Solitude 1.37

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft is generally positive about “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”. […]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in “The Yellow Wall Paper”, rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.

Lovecraft’s interpretation is fair, but curious. Many readings, especially today, focus more on the “rest cure” aspect, and the suggestion of postpartum depression. The women’s horrors, as it were. Lovecraft’s reading focuses on the subtle suggestions that Gilman never makes explicit: why has this colonial manse gone untenanted so long? Who is the woman she sees in the wallpaper?—and comes to his own conclusion. He stops short of suggesting a haunting, and it seems he was aware that the focus was on the slowly devolving mindset of the protagonist, the creeping psychological horror—and writing to August Derleth a few years later, when Derleth was working on his thesis “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890”:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is a great tale, but to me it lacks just that final touch of “outsideness” necessary to make the top grade […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.265

My stand on cosmic outsideness, however, is likely to remain unchanged; for I feel that this element is eminently necessary to produce a macabre thrill of the very first water. “The Yellow Wall Paper” & “Shadows on the Wall” are excellent of their kind, but the sensation they produce is a tame & secondary one as compared with that produced by “The Willows”, “The White People”, “The House of Sounds”, or even (in my estimation, at least) “The Yellow Sign.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.268

Derleth differed:

The weird tale can, I believe, be divided into two rough classes—those hinting of cosmic evil and horror—and those only vaguely suggesting something beyond, something beyond the surface, the appearance, and range all the way from vague fright to utmost horror. You prefer the former group, to which we would according to this grouping, parcel such tales as The Yellow Sign, your Cthulhu et al[.] tales, the White People, etc.; I prefer the latter group, in which fall Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman’s tales, your own Rats in the Walls, Strange High House, my Panelled Room, etc., The Monkey’s Paw, The Yellow Wall Paper. And so on. The vast majority of the first-raters belong in this latter class.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 2 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 2.402

However, Derleth did take Lovecraft’s reading to heart:

The Yellow Wall Paper is the story of a woman who goes made from the effect of hideously yellow wall paper in the room where she is convalescing, and where a mad-woman was once confined. The narrator, who is being urged to fight off the delusion that there is a woman trying to escape from behind the wall paper, enters gradually and subtly into the character of the imagined person; in reality this character, composed of forces left behind by the late madwoman, enters into her. Her husband does not realize the effect of the wall paper, nor does he regard the recent presence of the madwoman as significant. The story rises to a climax with startling subtlety, and the delineation of the approaching madness is classic. […]

There is something shudderingly horrible in the thought of this woman chronicling day by day her approaching madness, and remaining stolidly unaware of it all the time. Horror lies between the lines here, and the reader must read it in to get the full force of the story. […]

There is a suggestion of the “outside” [in The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers”], which neither The Yellow Wall Paper nor The Upper Berth [by F. Marion Crawford] carried […]
—August Derleth, “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890” in The Ghost (1945) 8-9

Neither Lovecraft nor Derleth denied the importance or the efficacy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a weird tale; Derleth himself borrowed heavily from Gilman when he wrote “The Panelled Room” (written 1930, published 1933). Both counted it an important tale worth mentioning in their respective overviews of weird fiction—and in this they were perhaps a little ahead of the game; while some classify “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a Gothic story, Edith Birkhead in The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) does not list it; neither does Dorothy Scarborough in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). Both those women focused on supernatural horror, and as Lovecraft pointed out—”The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t quite that. The horror is more vague, indeterminate, and we never quite know how much is real and how much is in the narrator’s mind.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is weird. So what influence did it have on Lovecraft?

In terms of direct influence, it’s hard to say. There are definitely elements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that jive with Lovecraft’s pet themes: the question of sanity, the descent into madness, the particular focus on angles—“The Dreams in the Witch-House” might owe at least a little debt to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Lovecraft himself, however, never offers any insights in this line. Savvy readers might point out that Gilman’s hotel in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or Walter Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” which could be glancing references, but aside from the obvious pun in the case of Innsmouth, “Gilman” is also an old established New England name—Lovecraft might have been inspired by her, or not. He is silent on the matter.

Gilman’s novel Herland was not published until long after both their deaths, so from Lovecraft’s perspective, she had only a single weird tale to her credit:

In the case of general authors who have produced a little weird material, one has to use one’s own judgment. I would, in such cases, ask (a) how typical of this author is his weird stuff, & (b) all apart from this, how important is this weird material? […] I’d admit Mrs. Gilman for her one weird tale—”The Yellow Wall Paper”—because of its great importance, though it is wholly non-typical of her.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 29 Dec 1934, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 396

There is little left to say. Lovecraft’s final word on Gilman concerns notice of her death. Suffering from breast cancer, she chose to take her own life with chloroform.

Too bad Mrs. Gilman bumped herself off—I was told of it in N Y, though I haven’t reached Aug. 17 as yet in my reading-up of back newspapers. […] Well—may she rest in peace!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

There are few enough women mentioned in Supernatural Horror in Literature; whether this reflected Lovecraft’s particular reading or any unspoken sexism on his part is unclear. Yet he went out of his way more than once in both that public essay and in his private letters to champion Charlotte Perkins Gilman for her weird tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”…and who can say that Gilman’s depiction of creeping madness did not strike a chord in Lovecraft, if the memory of the story stayed with him all those years?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be read for free online here.

Thanks to Donovan Loucks and Dave Goudsward for their help.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Her Letters to Lovecraft: Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom

In 1934, H. P. Lovecraft traveled down the Eastern seaboard of the United States by bus to Florida, where he visited with R. H. Barlow and his family in DeLand for some weeks. While on this trip, Lovecraft sent out dozens of postcards to familiar correspondents like his aunt Annie Gamwell, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Farnsworth Wright, Zealia Bishop, and Natalie H. Wooley—we have a list in the Collected Essays, “[List of Correspondents to Whom Postcards Have Been Sent]” identifying who got cards from where—and near the bottom of the list, receiving postcards from St. Augustine, DeLand, and Nantucket, is “Blossom.” (Collected Essays 5.267) In Lovecraft’s 1937 diary, a “J E C Blossom, 117 Church St., Rutland, Vt” is given among the list of addresses; Lovecraft scholar Ken Faig identifies this individual:

Josephine E. Crane Blossom was born 17 July 1861, Mayatta KS, and died 4 January 1952, Rutland VT. In the 1900 U.S. census, she was recorded in Shrewsbury, Rutland Count, VT in the household of her husband William R. Blossom, born April 1854 VT of VT-born parents, a physician. THey had then been married twenty-one years and Josephine was the mother of seven children, of whom five were then living all of them in the paternal household: Elsie C. (b. August 1885 VT), Ethel C. (b. March 1889 VT), Fay E. (b. August 1890 KS), Franklin O. (b. August 1890 KS), and Wilhelmina J. (b. August 1896 VT). Josephine Blossom was active as a poet in amateur journalism. (Lovecraft Annual #6 165)

No letters or cards from J. E. C. Blossom/H. P. Lovecraft correspondence are known to survive, so Lovecraft’s list is the only remaining evidence that testifies that they were in touch by mail; Blossom’s activity in amateur journalism is the one suggestion for why they might be in touch. The rest of Lovecraft’s published letters do not mention a Josephine Blossom directly…however, this is one letter in 1934 which may have bearing on their relationship:

Nor do I grudge old Ma Blossom of Vermont (a professional client) the newspaper praise of “her” verse which is giving zest to her sunset days.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Sep 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 179-180

This is the only direct mention of Blossom as one of Lovecraft’s revision clients; although S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz believe this is the individual alluded to in W. Paul Cook’s memoir of Lovecraft during one anecdote of Lovecraft’s efforts at revising the poetry of others:

A woman, very earnest, very soulful, writing by the yard but unable to achieve anything printable. All of a sudden, in a fair eruption of glory, she began to get into print here, there, and everywhere. Editors, instead of rejection slips, returned requests for more. I was puzzled. This stuff was too good for her to do. One day, in a purely incidental manner and in connection with something else, the secret slipped out. She commenced to suffer from enlargement of the ego, vulgarly called “Swelled head.” Why should she pay a revisionist when she was some poet all by herself. Accordingly, she dropped Lovecraft, neglecting, if not refusing, to pay his last fee. No more of her work appeared in print. In time something or other penetrated her consciousness, and it was in a state of considerable deflation that she sent Howard what she owed him together with a mass of manuscript. The manuscript came back, unrevised, with a note to the effect that Mr. Lovecraft was so busy, and would be for the next nine months, that he was unable to advise about her work. The deflation continues to all this day. So far as I know, she never published another poem. How do I know all this? Not from Lovecraft, although he later conceded enough to furnish proof.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 75

Cook is not always the most reliable of reporters, and in this anecdote he frankly admits that he’s working to a degree from speculation and inference—but there are some interesting facts that might support part of his anecdote. In November 1931, Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom began to have her poems published in the Rutland Daily Herald, and the poems received lavish praise including from Lovecraft’s friend Walter J. Coates, an amateur journalist who published The Driftwind, which included some of Lovecraft’s own work. The article of 9 November 1931 would end:

We can say, in addition, that Mrs. Blossom, who is now 70 years old, is still composing verse and we have before us another contribution in her own handwriting, which shows many characteristics of the foregoing “Autumn,” which is, as our experts have said, something of a masterpiece.

Have we, by chance, been living along side of a real genius?

It really looks that way.

In 1932, Blossom’s poetry becomes much more scarce in the newspaper, and the praise dries up—although Cook appears to be wrong, and she was published again, periodically. Did Lovecraft revise her poetry? If so, one of the pieces he may have had a hand in is “Dream World,” published 23 Nov 1931:

Dream World

Through dust and quiet comes the dawn-like glow
Of visioned vistas gay with roseate light;
Gardens more beautiful than we can ever know,
With fadeless flowers and golden fruitage bright.

Across dim twilight seas of fragrant dreams
A white ship bears us soundless to that shore,
Moved by the wordless music-hinting streams
Of soft, still winds that purple skies outpour.

Green banks expand with calm, Hesperian grace
And latent wonder beckons and revives;
Here may we shed the last encumbering trace
Of pains and cares that weight our waking lives.

The sunlit fields are starred with asphodels;
The forests echo to an endless song
Beyond the plains a violet mountain swells,
While in bright valleys brooklets wind along.

A world unspoiled, that shapes us all anew
As down its leaf-lined path our spirits stray:
How longs the heart to hold it clear in view.
And glean the joys of its eternal day!

Interested readers might compare this prose with Blossom’s later published work, such as “The Last Act” in the Rutland Daily Herald for 22 Sep 1943. Lovecraft himself downplayed the extant or quality of his poetry revision work:

Really, of course, the boost given to these old souls is very trivial. After all, one merely makes their jingles technically acceptable. The basic inanity remains, & no really exactly critic takes the doggerel seriously even when it is revised.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Sep 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 180

If it is the case that Lovecraft revised J. E. C. Blossom’s poetry, then their lost correspondence must have included at least discussion on that issue, and possibly something more on amateur affairs. Sadly, we don’t know how that impacted her…seventy years of age, homemaker and mother and wife, getting her poetry published in the newspapers along with rather lavish praise…and here in the mail comes postcards from Florida and Nantucket from her friend H. P. Lovecraft to brighten her day. That he continued to send her cards in itself suggests that it was still a friendship, whether or not there was a business end to it.

Thanks to Dave Goudsward for his help and assistance on the elusive Mrs. Blossom.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Hazel Heald

I am very sorry that I did not keep his letters, but moving around from place to place made it impossible. As some of them were personal I did not wish them to be around for others to read perhaps after I left this earthly life. Letters are sometimes left that seem sacred to the owners, but others see it in a different light.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 31 Mar 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Hazel Drake Heald was arguably H. P. Lovecraft’s most successful and prolific revision client. Between 1932 and 1937, five weird tales appeared under the name of Hazel Heald, the last of them being published only a month or so after his death, and all of them having Lovecraft’s hand in them to a greater or lesser extent. Yet for all that, relatively little is known about their correspondence: Lovecraft does not appear to have kept her letters, and she did not keep his. So once again we are left with a bit of detective-work, piecing together what we can of their relationship through Lovecraft and Heald’s other correspondence…and the framework of their relationship seems built around the timeline of their stories:

In this same year, 1932, I formed a little New England writers’ club of my own, and one of my members, a divorcee was very anxious to succeed in the weird writing field. She sent me an original manuscript with a very passable plot, yet told unconvincingly and amateurishly. I let Lovecraft read it when next he came over to our house on Pearl Street, and he agreed that it did have possibilities.

I wrote to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, club-member and told her about H.P.L., adding that he, too, was divorced. Would she like to have him look over her manuscript, “The Man of Stone”? She would! So I gave Lovecraft a note of introduction to Hazel Heald and another chapter in his life was soon taking place.
—Muriel C. Eddy, “The Gentleman from Angell Street” 22-23

I was a beginner and happened to be lucky enough to find HPL who certainly was the best to be found. He was a severe critic but I knew that if I finally suited him in my work that the editor would usually accept it. For example— I had to rewrite “Out of the Eons” six times before he was completely satisfied!
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 25 Mar 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1932, Hazel Heald was 36 years old, divorced, and working as a clerk or bookkeeper; but she had aspirations to be a writer. Her friend Muriel Eddy put her in touch with H. P. Lovecraft. We do not know exactly when and how Lovecraft and Heald began to correspond, although it seems likely to have been early 1932. The first mention of one of their stories in Lovecraft’s published correspondence is from August 1932 (Essential Solitude 2.497), in reference to “Winged Death”—but the first published story was “The Man of Stone,” which hit the stands in September of that year.

Given publishing times in the pulps, this tells us two things: that at least two stories had been written prior to September 1932, and that the stories seem not to have been submitted directly to Weird Tales—because “The Man of Stone” was published at Wonder Stories, and “Winged Death” was first submitted to Harry Bates at Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror. If Lovecraft followed his normal mode for revision clients, their initial letters would have involved many notes on the story or stories involved, genteel discussion of rates and terms, and suggestions for where and how to market the story. Having been subject to the capricious whims of Farnsworth Wright in the past, it wouldn’t be surprising if Lovecraft initially recommended other pulps who might pay more, and more promptly, than his “old standard.”

In September 1932, Lovecraft took advantage of a special low-cost ticket to visit Montreal and Quebec (Sep 2-6). Traveling on the cheap, Lovecraft gave little thought and less money to food and amenities:

Early the following Tuesday morning, before I had gone to work, Howard arrived back from Quebec. I have never before nor since seen such a sight. folds of skin hanging froma  skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws. The man was dead except for his nerves, on which he was functioning. that evening he had a dinner appointment in Somerville with a woman for whom he was doing some revision, and he had plans for things he wanted to do during the day.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 59

The dinner appointment was with Hazel Heald. Muriel Eddy gives her version of events:

She invited him up to her house for Sunday supper and arranged to have everything that H.P.L. liked best on the menu. they ate by candlelight, and he was greatly intrigued by her thoughtfulness in not having a household of people to greet him. He used to say he could think better when there were not too many people around to disturb his train of thought.

He tactfully explained to Hazel that her story, though very good, really needed a little touching up here and there, something to stir the reader’s imagination. Would she allow him to do it for her? He’d consider it an honor and a privilege. She agreed.
—Muriel Eddy, “The Gentleman from Angell Street” 23

Eddy must have her dates wrong, because by September 1932 “The Man of Stone” was already written and accepted by Hugo Gernsback at Wonder Stories. But they might well have discussed other revisions, since one had already been submitted and accepted. Heald would describe their revision process in this way:

Lovecraft helped me on this story as much as on the others, and did actually rewrite paragraphs. He would criticize various paragraphs and pencil remarks beside them, and make me rewrite them until they pleased him. I certainly slaved on that story—my first! But all of my later stories he revised in the same way. I was so elated when it was accepted. They said I would have to send them a photograph of myself. I had special pictures taken, then when the magazine came out, there was a caricature of myself that even my mother wouldn’t recognize! I felt so hurt that the readers would think of me like that, and HPL was a good one to ease that hurt in his kind way. He said that no one ever recognized themselves from their artist’s drawing. He also advised me to get a lawyer for the payment of my check.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 30 Sep 1944, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

While Lovecraft does not discuss any specific meetings with Heald in his letters, in her own letters she suggests that he made at least one, if not more visits to her corner of Massachusetts:

I was interested in Paul Cook’s account of Lovecraft’s Boston visit, and how he made him rest up before coming over to my house. He certainly did not act tired, and ate very well, although Cook said he gave him a good meal before he came. I wonder if he thought that he would be starved at my house? He seemed to enjoy himself a lot. Soon after that he came again, and we visited all of the museums together. That was where I conceived the idea for OUT OF THE EONS.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 14 Oct 1944, MSS Wisconsin Historical Society

It is not clear which museums they might have visited, or when this might have occurred, although both the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Semitic Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts are possibilities, with collections of Egyptian artifacts and mummies that might have inspired the fictional Cabot Museum.

“Out of the Æons” might have been conceived over dinner in early September, but “The Horror in the Museum” was finished by October:

I’ve just ghost-written a tale for a client in a fashion amounting virtually to original composition—about a waxwork museum or chamber of horrors where there is a rumour that not all of the fabulous monsters displayed are artificial. I’ve included Tsathoggua among the blasphemies.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Oct 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 394

In any case, Farnsworth Wright accepted “The Horror in the Museum” by mid-November 1932 (DS 397)—but by February 1933 a problem had arisen where Gernsback did not pay Heald for “The Man of Stone” (DS 404). At this point, Lovecraft had written at least three stories with or for Heald (“The Man of Stone,” “Winged Death,” and “The Horror in the Museum”), and one had been accepted and published, one rejected, and one accepted pending publication; but we don’t know if Heald had paid Lovecraft for any of them. Without their letters, we don’t know the exact details of their business arrangements—but the lack of payment from Gernsback could not have helped the business side of their relationship.

Still, Lovecraft must have had some confidence in his client, because by the time “The Horror in the Museum” hit the stands, “Out of the Æons” was written, submitted, and accepted by Weird Tales:

Glad you enjoyed the Witch House and Museum story. Another tale which I revised for the “Museum” author, and which Wright has accepted, brings in von Juntz and his black book as almost the central theme. It concerns a mummy found in the crypt of a Cyclopean stone temple of fabulous antiquity; volcanically upheaved from the sea.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 24 Jul 1933, A Means to Freedom 2.619

Weird Tales paid only on publication, and in the 1930s as the Depression worsened, often the payment was long after publication. It seems quite likely that by this point, Heald must have been in arrears to Lovecraft—and perhaps found a way to make up for it in kind:

Meanwhile (my hatred of the typewriter being stronger every day) I have had a delinquent client type the story I wrote last August, & have started the carbon on the rounds of the gang—beginning with Dwyer.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 8 Nov 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea &c. 175

I lately had a client type my story of last August—”The Thing on the Doorstep” (which isn’t very satisfactory), & am circulating the carbon amongst the gang (you’ll get it in time).
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 12 Nov 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 85

HPL helped me in return for typing his tale “Dreams at Witch House.” I also typed his “The Thing on the Doorstep.” His writing was familiar to me, so it was much easier than for strangers.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 31 Mar 1937, MSS Wisconsin Historical society

Heald also eventually, at Lovecraft’s suggestion, contacted New York lawyer Ione Weber to sue Gernsback for her money, and got it by November 1933 (DS 404).

Although Lovecraft does not mention it, “Winged Death” must eventually have been submitted to Wright at Weird Tales and accepted for publication; it hit the stands in the March 1934 issue…and that appears to have been pretty much the end of the professional side of Heald and Lovecraft’s relationship:

“Winged Death” is pretty much a ghost-written Ech-Pi-El-ism. All that honest Mrs. Heald had to start with was a cloudy idea about somebody killing somebody with bugs. Then she got a medical friend to shed some light on poisonous African insects, & decided to give the tale an African cast. That was all I had to go on. The plot—with the idea of transferred personality & the returning & ceiling-writing death-envoy—is entirely my own. But it doesn’t pay to do this sort of work—when one could have just as good chances of full pay with a piece nominally as well as actually one’s own. I’ve cut it out now—though the last two reliques of my collaboration (one more Heald opus & the collaboration with Sultan Malik) are yet to be printed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, DS 544

The “one more Heald opus” is presumably “Out of the Æons,” which Wright would hold onto without publishing (or paying for) until 1935. Still, though Lovecraft gave up ghostwriting and fiction revision as a business in 1934, his stories with Heald had a bit of an afterlife that they would have discussed in their letters: “The Horror in the Museum” was reprinted in the Not at Night anthology Terror by Night (1934), and reprinted in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937).

As far as the writing of “Out of the Æons” goes, Lovecraft would write when it was published:

Regarding the scheduled “Out of the Æons”—I should say I did have a hand in it…..I wrote the damn thing! The original museum-mummy story submitted for revision was so utterly lousy (some crap about a Peruvian miner trapped underground) that I had to discard it altogether & prepare a fresh tale. But it’s really foolish to attempt jobs so extensive, when with the same amount of work one could write an acknowledged story of one’s own. This is the last collaboration of the sort I shall ever attempt—indeed, I’ve turned a deaf ear to all further suggestions from Sultan Malik, Mrs. Heald, Kid Bloch, & others.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 Mar 1935, DS 594

Glad you like “Out of the Æons”—which is, as I may have mentioned, virtually an original story of mine. All that survives from the initial Heald outline (worthy Mme. H. never bothered to write out any actual text for it!) is the basic idea of a living brain discovered in an ancient mummy.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Apr 1935, DS 603

Ironically, fan response to Heald’s stories in Weird Tales were often more vocal than for Lovecraft’s contributions under his own name.

We can only speculate as to what might be in Lovecraft and Heald’s letters between 1934 and 1937; her name is notably absent from his 1934 list of correspondents to whom he was sending postcards on his travels (Collected Essays 5.267), but we know she wrote to him while he was in Florida in 1934 (thanks to a surviving envelope), so it’s likely they would have discussed their lives, travels, and writing. The best evidence for their continued correspondence was that in January 1937, Lovecraft still had a current address for her when fan John Weir asked for submissions for a new fanzine:

Sorry I can’t dig up any more material at the moment—am wallowing in a morass of tasks & staggering under what seems like a variant of grippe. Hope you can assemble sufficient copy for #1, & am glad you have an illustration for future issues.[…] Glad you’ve received at least some material from those I recommended. Come to think of it, you might get a short story (fairly long as such things go) from Mrs. Hazel Heald, 15 Carter St. Newtonville, Mass. Ask her for “In the Gulfs of N’Logh” or some other tale which didn’t land professionally.
—H. P. Lovecraft to John Weir, 28 Jan 1937, MSS. John Hay Library

“Some other tale” is where things get interesting. In her letters to August Derleth and elsewhere, Hazel Heald mentions “In the Gulf of N’Logh” (193?) and “Lair of Fungous Death” (193?), and her story “An Heir of the Mesozoic” was eventually published by Weir in his fanzine Fantasmagoria. Were any of these were stories that Lovecraft had a hand in, either through offering revision comments or fully ghostwriting, between 1932 and 1934? We don’t know, but their very existence suggests a correspondence that was more busied and complicated than just the four stories mentioned above would indicate—much like his correspondence with another revision client, Zealia Bishop.

H. P. Lovecraft died on 15 March 1937; it’s not clear when Heald became aware of his passing, but she wrote to Weird Tales shortly after:

Hazel Heald writes from Newtonville, Massachusetts: “I want to express my sorrow in the passing of H. P. Lovecraft. He was a friend indeed to the struggling author, and many have started to climb the ladder of success with his kind assistance. To us who really knew him it is a sorrow that mere words cannot express. His was the helping hand that started me in the writers’ game and gave me courage to carry on under the gravest difficulties. But we must try to think that he is ‘just away’ on one of his longest journeys and that some day we will meet him again in the Great Beyond.”
Weird Tales, “The Eyrie” Jun 1937

Mrs. Hazel Heald writes from Newtonville, Massachusetts: “A brain like H. P. Lovecraft’s seldom was found—uncanny in its intelligence. He was ever searching for more knowledge, gleaning by endless hours of study a richer and fuller understanding of people and of life. Being a great traveler, he reveled in the study of old cities and their hidden lore and would walk many miles to inspect some historic spot. He was a real friend to all who knew him, always ready to give his valuable time to aid some poor struggling author—a true guiding star. He was very partial to dumb animals, especially cats, signifying that interest in several of his tales. He would step out of his way to pat some forlorn alley cat and give it a friendly word, and the kittens of a neighbor furnished him unbounded enjoyment. He was an ardent lover of architecture and all the fine arts, and a day spent in a museum with him was time well spent. By endless hours of toil eh worked far into the night giving the world masterpieces of weird fiction, sacrificing his health for his work. Lovecraft was a gift to the world who can never be replaced—Humanity’s Friend.”
Weird Tales, “The Eyrie” Aug 1937

In the May 1937 issue of Weird Tales, Heald’s fifth story was published: “The Horror in the Burying Ground.” Without Lovecraft around to comment, we know nothing of when or how it was written, although it is popularly supposed from internal evidence that he had a hand in it. If he did write it, or at least revise it, sometime around 1932-1933, it would be one more example of the fruitfulness of their creative endeavors…and of the quiet failures and rejections that were masked by their successful sales.

My HORROR IN THE BURYING GROUND was rejected once by Wright, then several years later I rewrote it in several places and he accepted it. He said I had too much dialect to read easily.
Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 14 Oct 1944, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Little is known of Hazel Heald’s later life; her letters to August Derleth fall off after 1937, but pick up again in the early 1940s as he sought to obtain permission to republish her stories among Lovecraft’s revision tales. She continued to attempt a literary career, mentioning efforts to publish stories in the pulps without success, but for regular employment was forced to be a housekeeper.

Heald 1944Hazel Heald to Winfield Townley Scott, 8 Sep 1948, MSS. John Hay Library 

What did Lovecraft mean to Hazel Heald? What little correspondence that survives from Heald in library archives is entirely because of her connection to Lovecraft, in one form or another. In truth, we might not remember Heald at all if not for her position as Lovecraft’s revision client, and it could well be she knew that it was the Lovecraft connection which was responsible for the small attention she got from fans like John Weir and editors like August Derleth. Unlike Zealia Bishop or Adolphe de Castro, she never seems to have had the resources to consider seriously self-publishing, didn’t have the writing chops to get accepted by commercial magazines, and had no connection with fanzines beyond Weir’s Fantasmagoria. She sold a couple manuscripts to a dedicated fan, and apparently kept in touch with the Eddys, but that is about as far as the Lovecraft connection took her.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Harlem

Late night in Harlem on a Friday and the streets more full than at rush hour. Tommy Tester cherished the closeness, to his father and to all the bodies on the sidewalks, in their cars, riding buses, perched on stoops. The traffic and human voices merged into a terrific buzzing that seemed to lift Tommy and Otis, a song that accompanied them—carried them—all the way home.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 36

Places have character in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Dunwich and Arkham, Kingsport and Innsmouth, these are Lovecraft country and as much a part of the stories as any of the human characters taking part in the narrative. New York City was a character in Lovecraft’s stories too—in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “Cool Air”—yet there are parts of the city conspicuous by their absence. There is no Harlem in Lovecraft’s New York tales, scarcely any mention of Harlem in any of his fiction.

Lovecraft’s Mythos is expressly not a mythic white space. People of color exist, and are subject to the common contemporary prejudices that Lovecraft knew. They are supporting characters, often derided and stereotyped. Because there is a New York City in Lovecraft’s stories, we can assume there is a Harlem somewhere in it, and that African-Americans live there. Harlem as the center of the Harlem Renaissance, though; Harlem as the cultural center of African-Americans in New York; that Harlem is not present. Lovecraft never tried to capture the soul of Harlem in his fiction, and nor did many writers that came after him in the Mythos.

2016. Enter Victor LaValle with The Ballad of Black Tom. The novella is a re-working of “The Horror at Red Hook,” but this time Harlem is present. Tommy Tester and his father live there, it is their home, their haven, though even they don’t know all of its secrets. LaValle’s book expressly addresses the systemic racism and discrimination of 1920s New York, tries to tie it in to the fabric of Lovecraft’s stories and the geography of New York.

Even then, LaValle struggles with the portrayal of Harlem. The geography is right, but the descriptions are spare, often less than compelling, and mostly avoids major landmarks or descriptions of street life. “The Horror at Red Hook” takes place mostly in Brooklyn, so for much of The Ballad of Black Tom the main characters are not in Harlem itself, and consequently there is less opportunity to develop the character of the place. It isn’t Harlem as Lovecraft would have seen it—but then, what would that have looked like? What would it be like for a white man, known for his racism and cosmic horror fiction, to visit the Black Mecca of the United States?

Lovecraft in Harlem

At the elevated station at 6th Ave. and 42nd St. I lost my fellow Anglo-Saxon, whose home is far to the north in the semi-African jungles of Harlem […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 95

The Great Migration saw thousands of African-Americans move from the rural South to the cities of the North. In Manhattan, the neighborhood of Harlem became a center of black demographics and, as the 1920s wore on, black culture. Harlem became the geographic center of and gave its name to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that celebrated the best that African-Americans had to offer. Many white people during this time were more interested in Harlem’s nightlife, the cabarets, clubs, speakeasies, and sexual underworld which rose to legendary proportions during Prohibition, as chronicled in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926).

H. P. Lovecraft first visited Harlem in 1922. The native of Providence, Rhode Island had been invited to visit New York City by Sonia H. Greene, an amateur journalist who wished to disprove some of Lovecraft’s prejudices by broadening his horizons (Ave Atque Vale 148). The thirty-two-year-old weird writer, who had not yet made his first professional publication, traipsed through much of the city, visiting museums, parks, admiring the remaining old architecture, and visiting with friends such as James F. Morton, a progressive-minded white man who had authored The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906), was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and whose apartment was in Harlem.

Morton and Lovecraft had “met” in 1915, where they ended up on opposite sides of an argument over race and prejudice in the amateur journals In A Minor Key and The Conservative (see “Concerning the Conservative”). Disagreement led eventually to correspondence, and then to friendship—though they never came to agreement on the issue of racial equality, they enjoyed the debate, and had other common interests in amateur journalism and writing.

There is no indication that Lovecraft stayed long or delved deep into Harlem on that first visit, or any subsequent visit to Morton’s, but he would later write to his aunt:

After a period of discussion & repartee, which Mrs. Long said reminded her of the epigrammatic paradoxes of Oscar Wilde & Whistler, the gang adjourned to Morton’s chaotic apartment in Harlem. I had never before seen Morton’s abode, & naturally I was interested. He dwells in a street now overrun by niggers of the cleaner & less offensive sort—decayed, but still retaining the outlines of its former beauty. There are pleasing trees on both sides, & the architecture of the houses is highly prepossessing. No. 211—the Morton mansion—is an old brick single house owned by an elderly eccentric named Edwin C. Walker; a spacious & unkempt edifice, thick with dust, & with half the rooms unused. Morton’s room is on the top floor, reached by dark & winding stairs, & is remarkably neat though atrociously dusty.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.64

Walker was a noted freethinker who had founded the interracial Sunrise Club in 1889 and served as its secretary until his death in 1931; he and Morton were both advocates of free love, although it is not clear if this was in any way involved with how Morton came to live in Harlem. Nor did Lovecraft have go to Harlem to be aware of it, on the same trip he visited the Bronx Zoo:

Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.79

The United States Army was still segregated in 1922, and most troops were relegated to non-combat roles. An exception was the 369th Infantry Regiment, which gained popular renown during World War I as the Harlem Hellfighters. The unit was demobilized in 1918, but the segregated 15th New York National Guard Regiment from which it was formed continued. It is possible this was a member of that unit.

Lovecraft’s eye was mainly captured by the architecture, although on subsequent visits he would pay more attention to the inhabitants. The sheer numbers of black people living together in New York was amazing to Lovecraft—while Providence was not legally segregated in the sense of the Jim Crow South at that time, Lovecraft had always lived in the predominantly white portions of the city, though he was aware that there were black neighborhoods:

I hardly wonder that my racial ideas seem bigoted to one born & reared in the vicinity of cosmopolitan New York […] Over on the “West Side”, it is very cosmopolitan, but the East Side child might as well be in the heart of Old England so far as racial environment is concerned. Slater Avenue school was near my home, & the only non-Saxons were niggers whose parents work for our families or cart our ashes, & who consequently know their place.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 6 Dec 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 47

To put the demographics in perspective, the 1920 census put the total population of Providence at 237,595; in New York City in 1920, the black population alone was 152,467—and by 1930, there would be more African-Americans in New York than there were people of all races combined in Providence (1920 Census, 1930 Census). For a white man who had spent probably his entire life without seeing more than a handful of black people at a time, visiting Harlem would have been an eye-opening experience. He would visit New York, and Harlem, again.

In 1924, Lovecraft would return to New York to marry Sonia H. Greene, and to take up residence in the city. It was a tumultuous time in the writer’s life, as he struggled with domesticity, inability to find work, his wife’s illness, financial struggles, and finally separation as she left to take a job in the Midwest, leaving Lovecraft alone in a Brooklyn apartment. One of Lovecraft’s pleasures during this period were his outings with ‘the Boys,’ or as they became more formally known, the Kalem Club—a loose association of writers who would gather at each other’s houses and apartments to converse on every subject from poetry to politics. Morton held his share of the meetings:

Sonny [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.] and I settled the fate of literature betwixt us and parted early in the evening—with the understanding that The Boys meet up there on Thursday, August 7th, if Mrs. Long is well enough to stand the racket. Otherwise we convene at Morton’s dump in Bantu and barbaric Harlem, our first meeting there, by the way.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.145

In the evening The Boys met at Morton’s—up in niggerville—and had a great time despite the African cast of the contiguous terrain.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.147

Few accounts of these meetings survive outside of Lovecraft’s letters, although fellow Kalem-club member George C. Kirk once recalled:

August 15. Friday. Went to a party in black belt last night. If Lovecraft is a prince James F. Morton Jr. is a king. (Ave Atque Vale 223)

As time went on, Lovecraft found himself in Harlem again for other purposes than visiting Morton’s. Accounts are generally few and far-between; Lovecraft was a teetotal, against interracial relationships, and disliked jazz, and so appears to have had zero interest in the more “touristy” parts of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten might have showed him.

Saturday was a hectic round of the shops—both Harlem & Brooklyn—on Kirk’s behalf; & in the evening we parted laden with vases, candlesticks, sofa pillows, steins, Japanese panels, & the like—which Kirk bore to his room whilst I returned to 169 [Clinton St.] for slumber.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.239

However, for the most part during this period Lovecraft was only aware of Harlem from stops on the subway station at 125th street and Lenox Avenue. These were unsegregated cars, as Lovecraft would attest to an aunt who had experienced Jim Crow conditions in Georgia:

The separation of people & niggers at the stations is an excellent idea—which ought to be practiced on the Harlem subway trains here—& it would please me always to alight at the quaint & picturesque town of WHITE.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 10 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.243

Lovecraft’s experience of encountering African-Americans on New York subways is among his more odious anecdotes of living in New York, as evidenced by a trip to Pelham Bay Park:

It took an hour to get there; & since the train was uncrowded, we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line—& disillusion. My Pete in Pegāna, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help! It seems that the direct communication of this park with the ever thickening Harlem black belt has brought its inevitable result, & that a once lovely soundside park is from now on to be given over to Georgia camp-meetings & outings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mah lawdy, but dey was some swell high-yaller spo’ts paradifyin’ roun’ dat afternoon! Wilted by the sight, we did no more than take a side path to the shore & back & reënter the subway for the long homeward ride—waiting to find a train not too reminiscent of the packed hold of one of John Brown’s Providence merchantmen on the middle passage from the Guinea coast to Antigua or the Barbadoes.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 6 July 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.310

It is worth pointing out that Lovecraft was more vocally racist in his letters to his aunts than to pretty much any of his other correspondents; whether this is because they shared his prejudices or that he was simply more relaxed about writing to them is unclear. The tendency to slip into farcical vernacular English and African-American dialect is typical of Lovecraft—he was a student of dialect and did the same thing for many accents, in New England, New York, the South, and elsewhere in his letters, often playing for comedic effect—but even so, the naked prejudice on display shows how far out of his element Lovecraft felt. In large part, the degree of prejudice evidenced in Lovecraft’s few mentions of Harlem is because race is what set Harlem apart, at least in his mind.

The New York adventure ended in 1926. Separated from his wife, still with no job, and having had his apartment broken into and clothes stolen, Lovecraft finally packed his things and left New York to return to Providence. For the rest of his life, Lovecraft would maintain a detestation for the city—with its vast hordes of immigrants, Jews, and African-Americans. The rhetoric of Lovecraft’s prejudice increased during the rising tide of antisemitism that accompanied the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, as can be seen in one of Lovecraft’s more egregious statements:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 Jun 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 325

Morton had by this point moved from Harlem to New Jersey, so Lovecraft wasn’t literally calling for his death, and the full horrors of Hitler’s policy of genocide were not understood when he came to power in 1933. The callous suggestion for mass murder is hyperbole, a statement about his dislike of New York as a whole. The quote is worse in hindsight, knowing as we do today about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s use of poison gas to murder millions. Lovecraft did not know about that—but it speaks to the depths of his antipathy to the multiracial, multicultural melting pot that he had failed to find a place in.

Yet Lovecraft also retained ties to the city in the form of friends like the Longs, and would revisit it several times during his travels. He would also write of the city to his friends. When one young correspondent considered visiting New York, Lovecraft provided a list of places to visit, and included:

Harlem negro district (sinister & fascinating—not a white face for blocks—Lenox Ave. subway to 125th St.—walk N.)
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 128

The longest and most detailed account that Lovecraft ever gave of Harlem was to another young friend, a jazz pianist and aficionado of Duke Ellington:

Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether there are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. The Bronx trains are bad enough—packed solidly with bulbous-nosed or Mongoloid-faced Jews—but de Lenox Ab’noo trains sho’ ain’t no place fo’ no blond of any kind! Black Harlem itself I know largely from ‘bus windows—the coach lines from Providence passing down Lenox or upper 7th Ave. through the heart of the district. It is the extent which almost stupefies one…block after block after block…outdoing anything that Charleston or Richmond or Savannah or Atlanta or New Orleans can produce. You’d never think there were so many niggers in the world, or that there were so many denizens of New York that aren’t Jews! I’ll bet Senegal & Nigeria look white as compared with that zone from about 150th St. down to 125th & beyond. Africa pushes south all the time—crowding the Jews & impinging on the white Puerto-Ricans (who nosed out the Jews in their region about 1930) of upper 5th Ave. And yet this whole black colony scarcely dates from before 1913, when the blacks of “San Juan Hill” downtown were evicted to make room for the new Pennsylvania station. The dispossessed families found some cheap tenements in upper Harlem (then mainly Nordic-Aryan) & formed a nucleus—quickly spreading as the white families on their borders moved away. How far they will get, no one can tell. The Jews don’t retreat before them as rapidly as the Aryans did, but they begin to go when the blacks get very thick in a block. The northern rim of Central Park will probably check them & turn their spread eastward—where they’ll displace great Greek & Hungarian colonies. The most amusing parts of Harlem are where the rich blacks dwell—these being almost as neat & spruce as Aryan neighbourhoods. The houses include some of the most elegant reliques of the Stanford White period, & the prosperous professional Æethiops keep them spic & span! Amusing in another way are the shop windows of Lenox & 7th Aves. All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery. Sharp social distinctions are said to exist among the blacks—for example, West Indian negroes are disliked by the coons of the continental U.S. Some of the West Indians—who speak with a British accent & have an independent arrogance which grates on Southerners—despise the American blacks as much as the latter hate them. Portuguese negroes—so-called “Bravas” from the Cape Verde Islands, unpleasantly common in Providence & other southern New England ports—appear to be absent from nigger Harlem. While the black belt has no well-defined eastern limit, it is checked abruptly on the west by the rocky precipice of St. Nicholas Heights, atop which are the Gothic quadrangles of N.Y. City College (whose student body is almost solidly Jewish) & the streets of a rather passable & fairly Aryan neighbourhood amidst which can be found (overtaken & packed in among modern city blocks) the old country seat (built about 1800) of Alexander Hamilton, out of whose door he walked to his death on that fatal duel morning in 1804.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 65-67

There is some excellent detail here—one would not normally look for a random white tourist in Harlem to comment on straightening irons—but it is notable that by 1934 Lovecraft had traveled much more widely, visiting as far south as Key West and as far east as New Orleans. He had seen segregated buses and work gangs down South, visited the Cuban enclave of Ybor City and the Hispanic old city of St. Augustine, and yet he still found Harlem fascinating in its own unique way.

There are a few more scattered references to Harlem in Lovecraft’s letters, but with no friends to visit and not living in the city himself, he does not appear to have visited the city except passing through on bus trips for the rest of his life. The exploitative image of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten and others portrayed of Harlem appear to have largely passed Lovecraft by. Yet that was not quite the end of the connections that Lovecraft had with Harlem.

Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance

The published letters and essays of H. P. Lovecraft include few mentions of any African-American writers or artists directly apart of the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. This does not mean that Lovecraft was completely ignorant or unaffected by the work of such creatives—we know for example that Lovecraft was gifted a copy of Paul Morand’s Black Magic (1929) in 1931, and that book is illustrated by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. But the main works of that movement appear to have passed Lovecraft by.

This lack is particularly notable in his critical essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” first published in 1927. This survey of weird fiction misses contributions to horror fiction by black authors, including Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston, whose anthropological writings on folklore such as Mules & Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) would expand on subjects such as Haitian voodoo. Such a blind spot is understandable as Lovecraft explains in one letter:

Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 45

Lovecraft was not generally derogatory toward fiction written by African-Americans, and could even praise the efforts of individuals, but he simply had very little interest in the black point of view, and consequently read very little of such works.

By an odd coincidence, however, Lovecraft did have relationships with two individuals who were connected with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1921, Winifred Virginia Jackson and William Stanley Braithwaite established the B. J. Brimmer Company, which published a number of works by Harlem Renaissance artists such as Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze: A Book of Verses (1922). 

Jackson was white, divorced, a poet and writer who sometimes contributed poems to W. E. B. du Bois’ The Crisis. She had met Lovecraft through amateur journalism in 1918, and they had collaborated on two stories together: “The Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos.” R. Alain Everts and George T. Wetzel in Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1977) repeated gossip that Jackson and Lovecraft may have been in a relationship, though there is no evidence of this in Lovecraft’s letters. The same source claimed that Jackson was the mistress of William Stanley Braithwaite, though there is no evidence for that either. Whatever the case, in 1921 Lovecraft met his future wife Sonia H. Greene, and his friendship with Jackson faded.

Braithwaite was mixed-race, but in the United States at that period that made him “colored.” Lovecraft was aware of him as a prominent Boston editor and critic, but did not become aware of his race until 1918, when he read a newspaper account of Braithwaite winning the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, which occasioned a stunningly racist outburst (LRKO 112). Whatever Lovecraft’s feelings, they did not extend to discourtesy: a letter at the John Hay Library from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 February 1930, and is formal but cordial, and Lovecraft’s surviving letters to Jackson that mention Braithwaite praise him as a poetry critic.

Harlem in Lovecraft’s Fiction

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922)

Buck Robinson as a black boxer echoes Jack Johnson, the African-American heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) whose very existence caused white America to clamor for a “Great White Hope” to unseat him—and Lovecraft began writing this story in 1921, before he had gone to New York or seen Harlem. He had that much cultural knowledge of Harlem, as center of black population and black culture, to provide that detail. “The Harlem Smoke” is the only explicit reference to Harlem in Lovecraft’s fiction.

Which is a very weird absence when it is remembered that Lovecraft was writing fiction in New York, and those particular tales he wrote while living there—“The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air”—were set in or take inspiration from his experiences in the city. The only reference to black people among these stories is a brief mention of “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth” and “population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another,” in “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is set in Brooklyn.

The conspicuous absence of Harlem from Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat characteristic. Lovecraft wasn’t shy about including depictions of race prejudice in his fiction, so since Lovecraft basically didn’t write anything about Harlem in his stories means he inadvertently avoided saying anything negative about that place and its inhabitants. There were none of the exaggerated or exploitative material about Harlem that was characteristic of white writers like Carl Van Vechten.

On the other hand, it is also something of a tradition of erasure. Because there is no Harlem in these stories, there are also very few black characters and almost nothing about black culture in the Lovecraft Mythos. So while Lovecraft managed to minimize saying anything explicitly racist about Harlem in his fiction, there is also literally nothing about Harlem for later writers to expand off of. Harlem in the Lovecraft Mythos is effectively a blank slate, on which anyone might write anything.

So they did.

Harlem in the Cthulhu Mythos

Almost all of Lovecraft’s contemporaries at Weird Tales and his correspondents were white; the bulk of those did not live in or near New York City. At the time of his death in 1937, Lovecraft was an obscure author who never achieved widespread or enduring publication; his fanbase was small but loyal and vocal. Two in particular, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, sought to get Lovecraft’s fiction and letters into hardback publication, and to this end they formed the small publisher Arkham House—and managed through legal wrangling and much self-advertisement to establish a near-monopoly on Mythos fiction until Derleth died in 1971.

Which is to say that it took several decades for Harlem to really make any substantial appearance in the Mythos after Lovecraft’s death, but by the time that it did, the United States was in many ways a different place. Jim Crow and segregation had ended in the 1960s through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The legal successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not translate into financial or social equality, as African-American science fiction fans, writers, and artists remained in the minority, though increasingly they were given opportunities to make their talents known and voices heard.

This is the context in which The Ballad of Black Tom was written: faced with a mostly blank slate, trying to address a notable gap in Lovecraft’s corpus. Not just the absence of Harlem itself, but the absence of an African-American point of view. While LaValle’s Harlem may not come through as visceral as Lovecraft depicts it in his letters, he does succeed in depicting a Harlemite, and a much-neglected viewpoint.

Victor LaValle was not the only writer in the wider Cthulhu Mythos to attempt and address this gap. The most extensive effort to bring Harlem into the Mythos has been, not in short fiction, but in tabletop roleplaying. Chaosium, Inc. produced the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981, based on Lovecraft’s fiction and with a primary focus on characters assuming roles in the period in which Lovecraft’s fiction is set (1920s-1930s). Settings for this game include New York with books like Secrets of New York (2005, Chaosium), and entire third-party settings such as Harlem Unbound (2017, Darker Hue Studios). In these works, the focus is much less on Lovecraft’s prejudices and more “filling in the gaps” by addressing both what he did and especially what he did not write about. As editor Chris Spivey put it:

There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem’s time is fleeting. While classes, sexuality, and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song? (8)

There are differences between Secrets of New York and Harlem Unbound. The former is a product for a general audience; that is, the players and their characters are not assumed to be of any particular race or ethnicity—while Harlem Unbound focuses in on the black experience in Harlem, and while the players may by of any race, with the assumption that the player characters at least are going to be black Harlemites, like Tommy Tester in The Ballad of Black Tom. In that respect, Harlem Unbound has the heavy lifting to do of trying to show what Harlem was like, during Lovecraft’s life, as well as to find angles with which to connect Harlem with the Mythos.

For writers like Victor LaValle and Chris Spivey, Harlem is unclaimed territory, a blank space on the map where they can imagine and write their own stories. Yet it is not a place without a history; books have been written about Harlem, movies set there, contemporary street maps and photographs are available, and not a few stories left from people that remember what it was like when they were children there—if not during the 20s and 30s, then in later decades. Plenty of colorful detail where a savvy writer can fit in some aspect of the Mythos, either one dreamed up by Lovecraft or a brand new horror that ties into the greater framework.

Which is the promise and possibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and Harlem going forward: having been neglected for so long, we have arrived at a point where people of color can write and publish their own approach to what horrors might lurk in the shadows of Harlem, and how the Harlemites might deal with it. Which may ultimately be the way forward when it comes to Lovecraft’s fiction: to see and go beyond his personal limitations and prejudices, to explore the possibilities that his fiction offers, and to carve a new Mythos that can address the fears and experiences of all people.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deeper Cut: William Stanley Braithwaite

Reflections upon the various sorts of unusual verse prevalent in this age, leads me to mention a new bard whose work I have not yet perused, but whose poetry was reviewed by Mr. William Stanley Braithwaite in a recent number of the BOSTON TRANSCRIPT.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Kleicomolo, Apr 1917, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 99

In 1917, William Stanley Braithwaite was 39 years old and had been writing for the Boston Transcript for twelve years; that year he he would publish his fourth annual Anthology of Magazine Verse. Born from mixed-race parents, legal segregation in the United States of America decreed him a “Negro,” and throughout his life Braithwaite would experience discrimination because of his race—but he would also receive praise for his work as a poet, critic, editor, and publisher.

By 1917, H. P. Lovecraft was 27 years old and had finally emerged from his period of seclusion following the tumultuous period that had seen him lose his father, his family home, and fail to graduate highschool or go to college. The catalyst for Lovecraft’s re-emergence was amateur journalism, where he could find expression for his writing, poetry, criticism, and just plain interaction with other human beings, at first through letters and then increasingly in person.

It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first became aware of Braithwaite; the earliest reference in Lovecraft’s letters was in 1916 relating to Braithwaite’s The Poetry Review of America (LRK 43),which folded within a year. Braithwaite seems unlikely to have heard of Lovecraft before 1921-1922, in relation to certain poems that Braithwaite by Winifred Virginia Jackson that he wished to publish from Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative. Lovecraft and Braithwaite are never known to have met in person, but by odd coincidence and due to common acquaintances with Lovecraft’s circle, including Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, and Winifred Virginia Jackson, Lovecraft and Braithwaite would briefly exchange letters.

William Stanley Braithwaite would be Lovecraft’s only known African-American correspondent.

Race can be impossible to judge in print; unless it is specifically mentioned, the individual prejudices of the reader have little to focus on. Such appears to be the case with H. P. Lovecraft. For however many years he was aware of Braithwaite as a poetry critic at the Boston Transcript or from other publications, he seems to have assumed that Braithwaite was white. Then in 1918, Lovecraft opened the newspaper and learned that William Stanley Braithwaite had won the Springarn medal—an annual award for African-Americans. Lovecraft’s response was perhaps his single most virulent outburst of racism ever put to paper.

Speaking of poetical reviewers—I have not yet recovered from the shock the newspaper gave me last night! At the First Baptist Church in this city, on Friday evening, there occurred the annual ceremony of the award of the “Spingarn Medal”, which is given to the member of the negro race who achieves the most notable success in ‘any field of elevated or honourable human endeavour’ during the year. At these impressive exercises, Gov. Beeckman of Rhode Island gracefully awarded the badge of African supremacy to the Boston poet, critic, & literary editor—William Stanley Braithwaite!!!!!!!!!!!! Think of it—chew upon it—let it sink into your astonished & outraged consciousness—the great Transcript dictator, the little czar of the Poetry Review, is a nigger—a low-born, mongrel, semi-ape!—Ye gods—I gasp—I can say no more! Aid me, ye benign elves & daemons of anticlimax! So this—this—is the fellow who hath held the destinies of nascent Miltons in his sooty hand; this is the sage who hath set the seal of his approval on vers libre & amylowellism—a miserable mulatto! To think of the years I have taken this nigger seriously, reading his critical dicta as though he were a Bostonian & a white man! I could kick myself! William’s picture is printed in the Bulletin beside the news item, & from the likeness given I can deduce no visible sign of his black blood. A heavy moustache droops down over what may be thick negroid lips. But after all—I suppose he has only a slight taint of the beast. No nigger blacker than a quadroon would be likely to attain the intellectual level he has undoubtedly reached. I am not minimising what the fellow knows, but I think it monstrous bad taste for the Transcript to foist a black upon its literary readers!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112

When August Derleth & Donald Wandrei were compiling the first volume of the Selected Letters, they left this one out. That being said, for all the bald racism in this paragraph, there is reason to think that at least some of Lovecraft’s outrage is hyperbole—the reference to vers libre (free verse, poetry that doesn’t follow conventional rules of rhyme or meter) and “amylowellism” (Amy Lowell was a noted proponent of free verse) reflects Lovecraft’s poetic prejudices rather than his racial prejudices.

The racism on Lovecraft’s part was frank, and frankly enduring. While there are few mentions of Braithwaite in Lovecraft’s correspondence, he felt the need to address him to others casually as “the nigger Bill Braithwaite” (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37), “that eminent brunet critick William Stanley Braithwaite” (LFF 1.315), and “nigger Braithwaite” (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 220). It is no comfort to recall that such racist sentiment was shared by others—H. L. Mencken in a 1919 letter to George sterling refers to “The Braithwaite coon” (From Baltimore to Bohemia 55)—and the only “good” thing that can be said about Lovecraft is that he saved such epithets for his closest family and friends on the rare occasion Braithwaite came up in correspondence.

Then there’s the issue of the kitten…

I am glad also of the descriptive Braithwaite—leaflet—William Stanley is certainly at the head of American criticks of poetry, as indeed I realised before from the Transcript reviews. When a tiny coal-black kitten came to visit me in 1918 I called him “William Stanley Braithwaite” and used to let him chew even important papers and feather dusters with the natural destructiveness of a literary reviewer. But this William Stanley deserted me after 1919—he must have found my “poems” unpalatable. I wish I knew what became of him!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Winifred Virginia Jackson, 7 Oct 1921, LRKO 334

There is no reason to doubt that the kitten was real, and that Lovecraft named him “William Stanley Braithwaite.” Lovecraft mentions the cat in a letters to his aunt (LFF 1.37, 376). It is also a matter of record that Lovecraft had a habit of naming black cats after racial pejoratives for black people, beginning with his pet cat, who would later gain a kind of literary immortality in Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls” (written 1923, published Weird Tales March 1924). A line in a letter from Lovecraft to Edwin Baird reads “I can assure you that Nigger-Man is (or was, alas!) a glorious and purring reality!” (Selected Letters 1.298). However, the tendency is shown to use the similar epithets when referring to any black cat:

When I speak to little Sam I call him all sorts of things—”Little Black Devil”, “Old Nigger Man”, “Spawn of the Shadows”, “Little Piece of the Night”, “Old Black Panther”, “Little Onyx Sphinx”, “Child of Bast”, & so on, & so on ….. Not excluding the succinct & universal “kittie”!
H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 200-201

Turning to the other end of the chromatic scheme—there are 4 little niggers at the boarding-house across the garden from old 66—brothers or half-brothers of the late & unforgettable Sam Perkins.
H. P. Lovecraft to Duane Rimel, 10 Mar 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 260

Jason Colavito has pointed out in W. Scott Poole on Lovecraft’s Relationship to Poe and His Racist Cat that as terrible as this seems to contemporary readers, Lovecraft was far from alone in this kind of casual usage of the “N-word” and related terms, even with regard to the names of pets. The N-word was understood as pejorative, it was also in very common colloquial use. The only thing exceptional in this case is that Lovecraft naming a black cat “William Stanley Braithwaite” is making the N-word implicit instead of explicit.

There is also the issue of Lovecraft and Braithwaite’s common interest in Winifred Virginia Jackson. It’s not exactly clear when Braithwaite and Jackson became acquainted. In Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by Wetzel & Everts asserted that Jackson was a romantic interest of both men, and that she actually pursued an affair with Braithwaite (who had married in 1903; he and his wife had seven children). While it is clear that Jackson was friends and partners with both men in some sense—she and Lovecraft shared editorial duties and leadership roles in amateur journalism from 1917-1921 or so, and she and Braithwaite were business partners from 1921-1927 at the B. J. Brimmer Company—there is no evidence for a sexual or romantic relationship with either of the two men, nor does Wetzel & Everts present anything except vague anecdotes to support the idea.

What Lovecraft and Braithwaite did share was an appreciation for Jackson as a poet, and both men wrote critical appraisals that lauded her poetry—Lovecraft in amateur journals, and Braithwaite in wider form through his anthologies. Lovecraft called attention to Braithwaite’s praise for her:

The United takes pride in the distinguished recognition just accorded its premier poetess, Winifred Virginia Jackson; recognition of a degree hitherto gained by no other amateur journalist. Four poems of Miss Jackson’s, “Fallen Fences”, “Miss Doane”, “The Farewell”, and “Cross-Currents”, have been selected by the eminent critic and editor, William Stanley Braithwaite, for publication in his 1921 “Anthology of Massachusetts Poets”, whilst another notable group has won the supreme distinction of inclusion in Mr. Braithwaite’s authoritative general “Anthology of Magazine Verse” for 1921, to be published in November. We may appreciate the honour thus reflected upon the United when we consider the exclusive standards and classical reputation of the Braithwaite anthologies, as published by Small, Maynard & Co. of Boston. These anthologies, says the New York Times, are “signs of the times and milestones upon the way”. According to the Atlantic Monthly, they “Show the vigorous state of American poetry”. Of Mr. Braithwaite the late William Dean Howells said: “Mr. Braithwaite is a critic very much to our mind, and is the most intelligent historian of contemporary poetry we can think of.” The United indeed has reason to congratulate its poeticla luminar, and indirectly itself, as the first and continued field of Miss Jackson’s efforts.
H. P. Lovecraft, “New Notes,” United Amateur 21, No. 1 (Sep 1921)
in Collected Essays 1.299, cf. 303, 306, 307

Lovecraft had been intending to publish a new issue of his amateur journal The Conservative containing several poems by Jackson, but the issue was delayed and never eventually published, so that Braithwaite’s anthology ended up referring to a “ghost” issue (LMM 106). Yet by 1922 Lovecraft and Jackson had drifted apart, and Jackson and Braithwaite were focused on their new business, the B. J. Brimmer Company, which aside from publishing Braithwaite’s annuals also published material related to the Harlem Renaissance.

After 1922, references to Braithwaite are scarce in Lovecraft’s writing; usually only when someone noted that one or another of his poet friends had been mentioned in the annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, e.g.:

Your genius is far from unappreciated—indeed, Long tells me you are mentioned in the new Braithwaite anthology, (which I have not seen) an honour not by any means to be despised.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Jun 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 52

Smith had related this comment to his mentor George Sterling, who had previously expressed exasperation with and poor opinion of Braithwaite (Shadows of the Unattained 233, those interested should also compare From Baltimore to Bohemia 54-55 and especially “George Sterling’s Letters to William Stanley Braithwaite: the Poet Versus the Editor.” American Book Collector XXIV, Nov-Dec 1973). Which probably explains Smith’s rather lackluster response; Lovecraft in turn added:

As to Braithwaite—I guess he is as intelligent as the average anthologist, though all such characters have such streaks of poor judgment that their selections are occasionally rather unaccountable—both as to omission & inclusion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Jul 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 56

It is one of the oddities of Lovecraft that for all of his racial prejudice, and his early lambasting of Braithwaite for publishing free verse, he really did seem to respect Braithwaite both for his position in American letters, and as a literary editor and a critic. Which is what appears to have brought Lovecraft and Braithwaite into correspondence, however briefly.

All that remains is a single letter dated 7 February 1930, held at the John Hay Library. It is obviously a reply—whether Lovecraft had initially written to Braithwaite or vice versa is not known; nor is there any indication that the correspondence continued beyond this brief exchange. If Lovecraft initiated the correspondence, he would need only have written to the Boston Transcript, but if it was Braithwaite who started it, he would have needed to get Lovecraft’s address somewhere—from whom, we do not know. It begins formally: “Dear Mr. Braithwaite:—”

I am glad that you found merit in Mr. Long’s poem, & wish his work could be better known—for the encouragement of recognition would undoubtedly have the effect of stimulating him to more & more poignant utterance. There are provokingly few poets—just as there are provikingly few prose writers—who fully express that sense of the cosmic & the marvellous which is so potent a reality to many kinds of sensitive people. You would not find Weird Tales a very rich harvesting-ground for poetical material; although it does frequently contain excellent verses by Clark Ashton Smith, whom you have occasionally mentioned in the anthology. If Mr. Smith could only curb a frequent tendency toward extravagance, I think his work would be of even greater importance than it is. He is now entering the prose field to some extent—with exotic phantasies & tales.

The opening paragraph refers to Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Weird Tales; Long’s poem “The Horror on Dagoth Wold” had been published in the February 1930 issue of Weird Tales, which would have been on the newsstands in mid-January. Editor Farnsworth Wright had been in the habit of publishing weird verse, and perhaps that attracted Braithwaite’s attention for his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse—although as fate would have it, 1930 would be the last year the series would be published.

The second paragraph speaks to their mutual acquaintance:

It pleases me highly to learn of the continued progress of Miss Jackson, whose work gave such an instant impression of authentic genius a decade ago. I have seen & appreciated later verses of hers here & there, & am interested by the prospect of a novel from her pen. I shall be on the lookout both for this & for the short stories. It seemed certain to me from the first that her work had that sureness of insight & expression which marks genuine art, & the more authoritative confirmation of that judgment is very gratifying.

The in-between-the-lines on this paragraph is that Lovecraft has not been in continued contact with Winifred Virginia Jackson, which might be as expected from the lack of references to her in Lovecraft’s later letters; and, conversely, that Braithwaite has remained in contact with her, even after the bankruptcy of B. J. Brimmer Co. in 1927. When Lovecraft knew Jackson, prose was her weak spothence why Lovecraft did the revision on “The Crawling Chaos” and “The Green Meadow”; one has to wonder if she had intended to include these among the “short stories” mentioned. It is not clear if Jackson ever wrote a novel, although she did keep two scrapbooks full of news-clippings and notes for a projected novel.

Another early judgment of mine, which I hope later developments may confirm, relates not to an actual poet, but to a hierophant of poets—in other words, to a manual or text-book on the subject of poetic appreciation, which I think will be more effective than anything hitherto published in arousing ordinary minds to the beauty of poetry, explaining as much as can be explained of the poet’s appeal, & inculcating standards by which the genuine can be distinguished from the spurious. This book—”Doorways to Poetry”—is by Maurice Winter Moe, a teach of English in the West Division High School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; & a reading of it in manuscript has aroused my enthusiasm to almost inordinate bounds. It is so perfectly & incisively analytical, yet so appreciatively sympathetic & so free from pedagogical sterility. There is a chance of its acceptance by the Macmillan Co, & in the event of its publication I confidently expect qualified critics to sustain my own instant & unofficial verdict. There is no doubt but that you will receive a copy up its issuance.

The last paragraph concerns a project by Lovecraft’s friend Maurice W. Moe, Doorways to Poetry, which Lovecraft had assisted on but which never saw publication (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 16-20). It is very typical of Lovecraft to promote the work and abilities of his friends, rather than his own. Then the letter ends:

Again expressing my appreciation—
yr oblg’d & obt servt
H. P. Lovecraft

The “again” is the only real hint that this is part of a longer correspondence; it suggests that Lovecraft had written to Braithwaite at least once previously. Perhaps he did; if so, or if Braithwaite ever answered we don’t know.

The tone of the letter is obviously formal, and equally obviously lacks any reference to Braithwaite’s race, or any trace of racism. That too is very typical of Lovecraft; whatever prejudices he held, he was usually at pains to avoid giving offense to any individual in print, especially in later life. A researcher who read this letter without any knowledge of Lovecraft’s previous literary encounters with Braithwaite would probably not find anything exceptional about this very brief, mundane exchange between a pulp writer and a noted journalist and editor.

It would be very interesting to know more of Braithwaite’s own end of things: none of his published letters that I have seen mention Lovecraft, or shed much light on this letter or his relationship with Winifred Virginia Jackson. It would have been interesting if they had hit on some common thread of interest—they were both admirers of the weird fiction of Algernon Blackwood, for example (The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader 301, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”)—but that is in the realm of might-have-been. Perhaps in the future, research into Braithwaite’s letters and papers might lend more insight into their relationship—or perhaps not. It was, after all, only one letter in a life that was filled with letters, for Braithwaite.

What is interesting about H. P. Lovecraft’s relationship with William Stanley Braithwaite is simply how, with all of his prejudices, he could and would deal with a literary African-American. In private, Lovecraft let his prejudices show to his closest family and friends, more circumspect in conversation with other correspondents; in public, including his amateur journalism editorials, he was neutral. In his correspondence with Braithwaite, Lovecraft is unfailing polite. This shift in register is familiar in Lovecraft’s writing; a reflection of the stratified society he found himself in, where Braithwaite was a second-class citizen by dint of his race, but which social decorum required Lovecraft to address with a formal politeness. While we can see something of this shift in registers with a few other correspondents, it is only with Braithwaite that we can really see the full range of this unspoken code—because William Stanley Braithwaite is his only known African-American correspondent.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Winifred Virginia Jackson

I see that I need to don armour against a curious fate that concerns itself with bringing loss to me. The loss of Mr. Lovecraft’s letters also touches you.

May the California sunshine restore you to perfect health.

Very sincerely,
—Winifred Virginia Jackson to R. H. Barlow, 11 Nov 1938, MSS. John Hay Library

Winifred Virginia Jackson was born in 1876 (although dates vary), attended county and public schools, and then attended college at the Eastern State Normal School and the Curry School of Expression (now Curry College) in Boston, and was sometimes employed as a librarian. She married her husband Horace Jordan in 1915, so that when she joined amateur journalism shortly after she was known as Winifred Virginia Jordan.

We know that Winifred was recruited to the United Amateur Press Association in 1915 by Lovecraft’s friend and correspondent Anne Tillery Renshaw. Winifred must have written to Howard Phillips Lovecraft in late 1915 or early 1916, because her poem “Song of the North Wind” appears in Lovecraft’s own amateur journal The Conservative in the January 1916 issue. They continued to write to each other until at least 1921 or 1922, when references to her fade from Lovecraft’s correspondence. Yet for that 5-7 years of letter writing, all that remains are six letters from Howard to Winifred dated from 1920 to 1921, near the tail end of their relationship, and we must reconstruct what is left from Lovecraft’s other letters.

As a poet, she was successful in getting published in amateur journals and newspapers. At the United Amateur Press Association convention of 1917, Howard was elected President and Winifred was elected vice-president, so their correspondence for the next few years would have included much official business as well as any personal news. She also held various editorial positions, including the United Women’s Press Club of Massachusetts official organ The Bonnet, and published her own amateur journal Eurus. Some unsigned pieces in The Bonnet are believed to be from Lovecraft, so their letters must have included details about the journals she edited as well.

Around early 1918, Winifred was stricken with influenza—probably the “Spanish Flu” pandemic—and one of Lovecraft’s letters from the period suggests she required a nurse at home to care for her, and that she had to dictate her letters to Lovecraft through the nurse:

Mrs. Jordan’s recovery has not been as rapid as one might wish, but a copy of The London Daily Mail lately came from her, addressed in her own handwriting instead of her nurse’s, hence I assume she is much improved. In the last letter she dictated, she related an amusing recruiting incident.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 110

This formed the nucleus of what would become Howard and Winifred’s first collaboration, “The Crawling Chaos” (1921). Around the same period (1918-1919), Howard’s mother Sarah Susan Lovecraft experienced a nervous collapse that in 1919 required her to be committed to Butler Hospital. Lovecraft’s admiration for Jordan as a poet was growing, and includes his appreciative editorial “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion 3, No. 1, April 1919).

Also in 1919, Howard shared a dream in a letter; Winifred replied with her own, complete with a map, and suggested he make a story out of it. This became in 1920-1921 their second collaboration, “The Green Meadow” (1927). Both of these collaborations used her pen-name “Elizabeth Berkeley”, which Howard himself used twice himself. Perhaps at this time their correspondence became a touch more intimate; in late 1920 he wrote On Receiving Ye Portraiture of Mrs. Berkeley, Ye Poetess, indicating that she had sent him a photo. At this time, Winifred’s marriage likewise disintegrated, ending in divorce. She retook her maiden name, and in Lovecraft’s letters “Mrs. Jordan” became thereafter “Miss Jackson.” Lovecraft wrote to her:

From your amended, or restored, signature, I assume that your court case hath come to a successful termination; a circumstance which will cause universal rejoicing because of the inevitable suspense & tension from which it doubtless relieves you.
—H. P. Lovecraft to W. V. Jackson, 25 Dec 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 329

Rumors of a romantic relationship between Howard and Winifred derive Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by George T. Wetzel & R. Alain Everts, a scarce chapbook which repeats a good deal of decades-old gossipsome of it provably wrong; despite assertions by Wetzel & Everts that Horace Jordan was African-American, his birth certificate and draft card both list him as white. So too, Lovecraft and Jackson were not always in perfect agreement: while Lovecraft was an ardent Anglophile and supported the British during World War I and the Irish War of Independence, Jackson supported Sinn Fein:

I first heard of the organisation from Mrs. Jordan, who is so devoted to the cause that she does secretarial work at the offices two or three days every week without remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 85

Despite these political differences, Howard mentions continuing to see Winifred at various amateur get-togethers, and he even published a critical appreciation: “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (United Amateur, March 1921). Her appreciation for Lovecraft also appears to have been real; on one visit to her house he noted:

[…] I found my worthless poetical attempts predominating in her old scrap books which date back to a time when their inspection by me was probably never anticipated.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Sarah Susan Lovecraft, 17 Mar 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.33

Susie Lovecraft died 24 May 1921 at Butler Hospital, after complications from gallbladder surgery. Howard would write:

My dear Miss Jackson:
It may indeed be said with justice that you have lost a friend in my mother, for although you never heard directly from her, she may be reckoned among the earliest and most enthusiastic admirers of your work. As I recall her especial appreciation of your poems, from the very first she saw, I regret the more that you did not know her personally, either by letter or meeting.
—H. P. Lovecraft to W. V. Jackson, 7 June 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 330

That July, Howard and Winifred both attended the National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston—where Lovecraft met a new amateur from New York, Sonia Haft Greene. Everts reports that in a 1967 interview Sonia told him “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.” Maybe it was so; references to Sonia increase in Howard’s letters at the same time that references to Winifred decrease—yet the correspondence between HPL and WVJ did not cease immediately. If there was a romantic rivalry, it’s not clear that Lovecraft was even aware of it…and there was another factor.

William Stanley Braithwaite was a prominent African-American poet and editor; Lovecraft was not immediately aware of his race (Braithwaite’s parents were both mixed race) until 1918, when Braithwaite was awarded the Springarn medal, this occasioned one of the most intemperate outbursts of racial prejudice in Lovecraft’s letters (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112). In the Twentieth Anniversary Number (1921 annual of the Bibliophile Society in Boston), Braithwaite wrote an introduction “The Poetry of Winifred Virginia Jackson”—and the two would soon begin a much more substantial collaboration. In 1921 Braithwaite and Jackson would found the B. J. Brimmer publishing company, which published Braithwaite’s annual anthologies of magazine verse and several works associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The latter connection with African-American literature is no doubt why Winifred was mistakenly identified as black in Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History: and a Heart to Heart Talk about White Folks (1921). Wetzel & Everts assert that Jackson and Braithwaite were having an extramarital affair, but there is no evidence for this.

Lovecraft by 1921 was certainly aware that there was some association between Jackson and Braithwaite; his last extent letter to Winifred mentions Braithwaite, whom Lovecraft also named a black kitten after (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 334); and there are scattered other references in his letters, mostly to Braithwaite writing about Jackson’s poetry or mentioning The Conservative in connection to it (Letters to Family & Family Friends 37, Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 106). Whether Lovecraft was aware of them being business partners is unclear; the references to her in his correspondence drop off precipitously in 1921-1922. A single letter from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 Feb 1930, where HPL is pleased to hear about WVJ, so they must have been out of touch by that date.

Which need not have been anything more elaborate than two friends drifting apart. Winifred Virginia Jackson was spending more time with her new business and less with amateur affairs; H. P. Lovecraft was spending more time with Sonia H. Greene, whom he would marry in 1924. For the lack of their surviving correspondence, Lovecraft gives a clue:

She has a fad for destruction, and wishes all her epistles burnt without exhibition, though they are in truth far less slanderous than the presumably preserved GALLOMO. I usually comply with the wish, though in this case had to save this one sheet for the sake of the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 31 Aug 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 109

What did her letters to Lovecraft mean, to Winifred? Certainly he supplied encouragement and enthusiasm for her poetry; they shared dreams and collaborated on two stories; and their period of correspondence was marked by major life events for both of them: disease, divorce, & death. They shared a close professional correspondence as the lead administrators of the United Amateur Press Association…and if there was anything more, we can only guess at it.

The six surviving letters consist of one draft among Lovecraft’s papers, and five letters that R. H. Barlow transcribed and submitted to August Derleth; only an excerpt from the first letter was published in Selected Letters I. Presumably, these were all of the letters that Winifred was able to unearth when Barlow contacted her c. 1938.

All six letters have been published in Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).